Bereaved parents fought to make collapse site a memorial

The site of last year's collapse, at the southeast corner of 22d and Market Streets, is to become a memorial park. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is developing "a space that would be contemplative and offer solitude in a very busy intersection."
The site of last year's collapse, at the southeast corner of 22d and Market Streets, is to become a memorial park. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is developing "a space that would be contemplative and offer solitude in a very busy intersection." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 02, 2014

For months, Nancy Winkler and Jay Bryan went out of their way not to pass by 22d and Market Streets.

They lived only three blocks away, so it wasn't easy. But avoiding that corner forever would be almost impossible.

When the couple did finally find themselves there in April, what they saw only deepened the sadness in their lives - a barren lot, long and narrow, strewn front to back with accumulated garbage.

"It was depressing to see that people were trashing it," Bryan said.

They would have none of it. On a recent Sunday, they climbed over the four-foot-high chain-link fence around the property. With their 26-year-old son, Chris, they went to work, picking up beer bottles, soda cans, coffee lids, banana peels, wrappers, plastic forks, newspapers - enough to fill three 30-gallon bags.

"It felt like a righteous act," Bryan recalled.

Once the lot was cleared and clean, his wife planted wildflower seeds, in tribute to their daughter.

A year ago on June 5, Anne Bryan, 24, had washed and folded a pile of old clothes at her parents' new townhouse on 22d Street. With her childhood best friend, Mary Simpson, also 24, she headed to the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 2140 Market.

Anne had never been inside the shop.

"She was so happy that day," Winkler remembered. "I can see them walking down the block, joking and carrying things to make a donation."

At 10:42 a.m., as Anne and Mary browsed, the brick wall of a four-story building being demolished next door collapsed onto the one-story Salvation Army store.

The friends did not escape. Nor did Roseline Conteh, 52, and Juanita Harmon, 75, two other shoppers. Borbor Davis, 69, a Liberian worker who hung clothes, and Kimberly Finnegan, 35, another employee transferred to the Center City store just that morning, also died.

Winkler refuses to call her daughter's death an accident.

A catastrophe? Yes.

An act of God? No.

"If everyone had done the right thing, this never would have happened," she said.

Winkler knows how the city works - or doesn't. She belongs to Mayor Nutter's cabinet, overseeing billions in investments as city treasurer.

In the last year, she and her husband have channeled their grief into action.

They have pushed for an independent inquiry into the breakdown of safety standards and lax oversight of demolition work.

They have pressed City Council for reforms to the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.

They have galvanized an effort to turn the land at 22d and Market into a memorial park.

And they continue to ask difficult questions, reminding the city that this tragedy was avoidable.

At a hearing before City Council on Nov. 18, Winkler and Bryan urged members to improve the way the city is monitoring demolition work.

"This was not a freak accident," Winkler testified. "It was strictly a case of when that wall would come crashing down. Not if."

"It was a case of who would be killed. Not if anyone would be killed."

In the weeks after the collapse, Winkler and Bryan retreated from the city, staying at a house in the suburbs, unable to confront the wreckage on Market Street.

Reports began to surface - in the press and around City Hall - that STB Investments Corp. wanted to put up a parking lot once the site was cleared of debris. STB owned the building that collapsed onto the thrift store.

Bryan said he was "horrified" by the parking-lot news.

"The idea of people paving over it," Winkler added, "was demeaning to human life."

She could not contain her anger. In August, while laid up with a broken ankle after tripping on a tennis ball, Winkler posted an online petition. Should the site of the thrift store become a memorial? she asked.

Within a week, she had 1,000 signatures in support.

In another month, the number topped 6,000.

Comments poured in from around the world. A woman in Japan said a memorial would serve as a reminder that the safety and security of people should be "valued above profits, expediency and poor work practices."

A writer from Merion wrote that this "Third World-style tragedy" on the city's main east-west thoroughfare was "a disgrace."

The couple broached the idea of a memorial with friends. They were discouraged by the response. Bryan said a common reply was, "It would be nice, but it's not going to happen."

The lot - only 19.5 feet by 125 feet - was as good as money in the bank. The assessed valued was more than $750,000. It would be too valuable to give up, skeptics cautioned.

The family pressed on. A committee of volunteers - neighbors, lawyers, and experts in design and urban spaces - was formed to advance the idea. At most, the group hoped to persuade the Salvation Army to allow it to put up something temporary.

Mayor Nutter offered to press the case with the nonprofit.

On Feb. 13, as another blizzard was ready to hammer the city, the mayor gathered lawyers and aides for a conference call with Lt. Col. Hugh Steele, a commander in the Salvation Army's eastern territory.

Nutter had his talking points in order. He was prepared to push hard.

But after only a few minutes into the conversation, he realized he didn't need to.

Steele immediately offered to donate the land to the city. "It was," Steele later said, "the right thing to do."

Quickly, the project shifted from a temporary memorial to a permanent park under city control.

The Salvation Army has transferred the land to the city.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, meanwhile, is developing a design: a simple pocket park with six trees, tufts of native grasses, and granite benches - "a space that would be contemplative and offer solitude in a very busy intersection," said Nancy Goldenberg, PHS's chief of staff.

While the Department of Parks and Recreation will maintain the park, the committee for the "22d and Market Memorial" is raising money to cover construction costs.

In a nod to Anne Bryan, an art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the park will feature a sculpture by a student or alumnus of the school. The academy is holding a competition for the commission and expects to announce three finalists on Thursday.

With the anniversary of the tragedy approaching, the organizers presented their plans to their most important audience: the other families of victims.

At a private meeting two weeks ago, about a dozen strangers sat in a semicircle in the conference room of a Center City law firm.

One by one, they stood up to introduce themselves and to tell their stories.

"I felt as if we had all met before," said Maggie Davis, 75, the wife of the Salvation Army employee Borbor Davis.

Bob Coleman, the fiancee of Kimberly Finnegan, thought the design "couldn't have been any better."

"I was glad something was being done," he said.

Davis, who lives in Darby, allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to return to the city. She hasn't been back to the site since that grim morning.

"I can imagine taking the No. 11 trolley, climbing up the stairs, and going right to the park and just sitting there," she said. "I could bring a cup of tea and just think about my past and how good we were together."

When Winkler was hired by the city three years ago, she and her husband traded a Narberth zip code for a Center City address.

On walks, they like to explore the nooks and crannies of their new neighborhood. They have discovered hidden works of art - many of them memorials to victims of tragedies.

On the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, they came upon a monument to the millions who died in the Holocaust.

Just south of City Hall, they noticed a granite marker with three bronze helmets for firefighters killed in the 1991 One Meridian Plaza fire.

Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, they found a bronze statue to the victims of the 1915 genocide in Armenia.

And soon, when they turn south and head three blocks from their house, they will find a small oasis that will bear witness to the six who lost their lives at 22d and Market.

"It's the right use," Winkler said.


Award-Winning Coverage

The Inquirer's coverage

of the deadly building collapse was named Best of Show for Newswriting Friday in the annual Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors contest. The judges said: "An impressive piece of breaking news and enterprise. . . . Exceptional and a clear winner."


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

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