Inquirer Editorial: What have we learned?

Officers take the sign from the collapsed thrift store as evidence last month.
Officers take the sign from the collapsed thrift store as evidence last month. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: August 01, 2013

Although Mayor Nutter has made progress in releasing information related to the fatal June 5 building collapse at 22d and Market Streets, he unwisely continues to withhold key records, losing an opportunity to correct the city's long-standing failure to deal with crumbling buildings.

The mayor has allowed some officials to testify before City Council on the botched demolition job, and he has released inspection reports.

But he has yet to release a video made by a building inspector who apparently committed suicide in the wake of the collapse. Assurances that the video isn't relevant aren't enough. Only its release will allow the public to determine whether a TV station was wrong, as the Mayor's Office contends, in reporting that the inspector said the collapse was his fault.

Nutter is also standing by his reversal of a decades-old policy of releasing memos explaining city settlements, including $878,901 in demolition claims in the last five years.

Nor has the city offered a cogent explanation of how the demolition job got a permit. The application estimated that the job would cost $10,000, an absurdly low figure; experts say it would have cost at least $250,000.

Information obtained by The Inquirer, some of which was later released by the city, shows the tragedy could have been averted. E-mails from the owner to the city warned of the danger. But the owners went ahead with the demolition, and the city didn't stop them.

The city did not knock down this building. But it can use the tragedy to improve its handling of decaying structures, a problem that affects every neighborhood. Instead, the administration is behaving like a defendant with a bad case, obfuscating and casting blame.

Consider Nutter's outburst three days after the collapse. He blamed it on Sean Benschop, who was operating the excavator that dislodged the four-story wall that fell onto the Salvation Army store, killing six and injuring 14, including himself. "It is because of his reckless and irresponsible behavior that six people died and 13 people were hurt and buried under debris and bricks," Nutter said in a statement that also blamed the building owners and another contractor.

But this was no isolated event. It was a product of the city's tolerance of abandonment, tax deadbeats, and sometimes unseemly relationships between speculators and regulators. Given the progress Nutter has made with a tough inspector general and a professional administration, his failure to illuminate these problems is baffling.

Philadelphia will learn from this terrible event only by understanding it. Instead of cowering behind bad legal advice, Nutter has an obligation to lead us in learning more.

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