Survivor in Center City collapse recounts her hours of terror

Mariya Plekan, 53, was buried under rubble for 13 hours. She lost both legs.
Mariya Plekan, 53, was buried under rubble for 13 hours. She lost both legs. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 05, 2014

Her words tumbled out in Ukrainian, and even without a translator, the meaning was clear.

There was terror in the eyes of Mariya Plekan on Tuesday evening as she remembered the morning of June 5, 2013, when she went shopping at the Salvation Army thrift store at 22d and Market Streets.

The 53-year-old mother of two recounted with the help of a translator being pinned under bricks and timbers after a wall on an adjoining building undergoing demolition collapsed on the Center City store, killing six and injuring 14.

For the first time, Plekan talked publicly about the disaster at a news conference at St. Ignatius Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in West Philadelphia.

Her 26-year-old son, Andrii, wheeled her into a glass-roof sunroom at the nursing room to meet reporters.

A white towel covered her lap. She has no legs.

Buried for 13 hours under tons of rubble, she said she had to breathe through a small hole in the debris.

"I thought I was dying," said Plekan, wheezing as she deeply inhaled and exhaled. "I never felt so scared. There were heavy bricks on me. I couldn't move."

"I heard my phone but could not reach it," she said. "I was praying, always praying."

Hours passed. Night came. Her tomb grew quiet.

And then, she heard a dog.

"I will never forget that moment."

She felt the pressure of someone walking on top of her. She cried for help. The dog barked. And a firefighter dug her out.

Plekan said she wants very much to meet her rescuer. She didn't know his name and was told that it was Philadelphia Fire Capt. John O'Neill, a search-and-rescue specialist. She knows what she would tell him if given the chance: "Thank you for my life."

Plekan's medical care has cost millions.

"She faces incredible challenges," said Andrew Stern, a lawyer for Kline & Specter who represents her in a lawsuit against the Salvation Army, the owner of the building that collapsed, and the demolition contractors.

Her suit is one of 16 civil actions, which have been put on hold as a criminal investigation into the catastrophe continues.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has filed criminal charges against the demolition contractor, Griffin Campbell, and a heavy-equipment operator, Sean Benschop.

Plekan spent six months recuperating at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania before moving to the rehab center.

She came to the United States in 2002 and worked as a caregiver for a series of elderly Ukrainian people.

After the accident, her 25-year-old daughter, Natalia, traveled from Ukraine to be with her, but had to return after her six-month visa expired. Only then was her son given a visa and allowed to take his sister's place in Philadelphia.

Plekan said she wants both of her children to live in Philadelphia in order to care for her. Stern said the family is working with an immigration lawyer to try to make that happen.

"I need them now like never before," Plekan said. "I don't have legs. I cannot take care of myself."

At the news conference, she sometimes closed her eyes and furrowed her brow as she answered questions.

Her voice rose when a reporter asked what she would say to the people responsible for the building collapse.

She said she would look them in the face and ask: "How am I supposed to live now?"


>Inquirer.com

Read more about the collapse and the aftermath at www.inquirer.com/collapse


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/doubledown

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