Families torn apart in building collapse

Jay Bryan, left, and Nancy Winkler, right, stand at the corner of 22nd and Market Street in Philadelphia where their daughter Anne Bryan was killed in a building collapse on June 5, 2013. In the wake of their loss, the couple has worked to transform the now empty location into a memorial for those killed in the accident.
Jay Bryan, left, and Nancy Winkler, right, stand at the corner of 22nd and Market Street in Philadelphia where their daughter Anne Bryan was killed in a building collapse on June 5, 2013. In the wake of their loss, the couple has worked to transform the now empty location into a memorial for those killed in the accident. (Andrew Thayer/Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 06, 2014

THE BUILDING collapse on Market Street shook the city to its core, prompting a host of reforms and investigations. It also ended the lives of six people - and played a role in the death of a seventh - and left their families forever heartbroken. One year later, the Daily News looks back on those lost on that bright June day.

Borbor Davis

A Styrofoam heart adorned with plastic flowers is Salvation Army worker Borbor Davis' only tombstone.

His widow, Maggie, can't afford a real headstone. Nobody has offered to help her buy one, she said.

At least the ground that had eroded away from her husband's grave site in early May, revealing the cement enclosure for Borbor's coffin, was replaced by the cemetery last week.

The dirt is still so fresh that Maggie, 75, can pick it up and let it fall through her fingers as she stands atop the hill in Lansdowne's Fernwood Cemetery.

"When I came and saw his grave had fallen like that, I was so angry," she said. "My husband didn't ask to go there. He was not sick. He was sent there."

Borbor, 68, was working in the basement of the Salvation Army at 22nd and Market streets on June 5, 2013, when the building collapsed.

"That's when everything stopped," she said. "It's been very hard for me since."

A native of Liberia, Borbor was orphaned as a boy, Maggie said. He escaped his war-torn homeland to Ghana, where he lived for several years before coming to America "for peace," she said.

Borbor was never married in Liberia but he had a son there who couldn't come to the States for his father's funeral because his immigration was refused, Maggie said.

Borbor worked for the Salvation Army for six years. He and Maggie had been married for eight years and lived in Darby. The two spoke on the phone just 10 minutes before he died. Although Maggie didn't want the call to end, Borbor, whom she described as a "dedicated" and "obedient" employee, hung up on her so he could get back to work.

Maggie's been unable to return to her job as a phlebotomist, and just months after she lost her husband last year, her son died of cancer and her 13-year-old grandson died in a car accident.

"I lost too much," Maggie said. "I pray, I read my Bible and I talk to God about why I should be in this."

In the hours after the collapse, Maggie remembers running to hospitals and funeral homes to find her husband. Borbor's body eventually was pulled from the rubble.

"He was broken up," she said.

James McClain, Maggie's son and Borbor's stepson, said that at first, their family was in shock.

"But then you really start to realize what happened and it's very horrible," he said. "There's a lot of anger there. He was a strong guy. He was not sick. It was just taken. His life was just taken."

Though so much has been taken from her, Maggie just wants one thing - to give her husband the headstone he deserves.

"If I was working he would have his tombstone ever since," she said. "But I visit him all the time."

Anne Bryan

On that beautiful morning, Anne Bryan, 24, took a bike ride with her mother, city Treasurer Nancy Winkler, through Schuylkill River Park. They pedaled past a bench placed in honor of a family friend, Rob Stuart, one of the park's indefatigable founders.

A few hours later, Anne died in the collapse. She'd been shopping with her childhood friend, Mary Lea Simpson, who perished with her.

Soon, a bench in Anne's memory will be placed next to Stuart's. When Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, visited the site, they realized it had been special to Anne, a first-year student at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For her dad's birthday, she'd done an etching of his bicycle as it leaned against Stuart's bench.

"We didn't know she'd used his bench," Winkler said. "It will be nice that they're close together."

It has been a year of grief and advocacy for Anne's family, which includes a brother, Chris.

They lobbied to have the collapse site, now vacant, designated as a memorial garden. Money is being raised on indiegogo.com and design proposals are on display at PAFA.

They pushed for a blue-ribbon panel to examine Philly's Department of Licenses & Inspections, which oversees building projects. The commission's report is due in September.

Winkler started a Twitter feed (@momforjustice) to give voice to her grief and to city building issues. She was appalled, for example, that no criminal charges resulted from the deaths of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, killed in the April 2012 fire of an abandoned Kensington factory owned by New York slumlords.

"Heartbreaking," she tweeted.

And she and Bryan recently selected pieces of their daughter's artwork for display at PAFA's student exhibition. The show usually features the work of graduating students only, but Anne's was included posthumously.

"It was very difficult for us to decide to display Anne's work alongside [that of] masters' students; she was a first-year and hadn't prepared anything for exhibition," Winkler said. "But it was the only work she'd been allowed to do. We wanted others to see it."

Today, Anne's loved ones will attend the city's memorial service for collapse victims. Afterward, they plan to visit Anne's grave, where a headstone was to be placed earlier this week.

"Anne was loving, interesting, caring, hilarious, smart and just such fun," Winkler said. "We are so sad. We miss her terribly."

Mary Lea Simpson

At 24, Mary Lea Simpson's future was bright. The easygoing New England Institute of Art alum was pursuing a career in sound engineering.

The Bryn Mawr native graduated in 2007 from Haverford High School, where she excelled as a figure skater and "exemplified what we call Haverford Pride," the school's principal, Jeffrey Nesbitt, said a few days after Simpson was killed.

Her parents, Zachary and Starr Simpson, did not want to be interviewed, said the family's attorney, Steven G. Wigrizer.

"I don't know that you could ever fully recover from the loss of a child. Every day is painful for them," Wigrizer said. "But they are moving ahead with their life. They have pulled together as a family and find strength in each other."

Roseline Conteh

Roseline Conteh, 52, had four children and five grandchildren, but countless others called her "Mother" because of her kindhearted ways.

The longtime teacher from Sierra Leone had relocated to Philly a decade ago and worked as a certified nurse's assistant at two retirement homes. Dedicated to helping others, she took in children orphaned by her native country's civil war, donated to the poor and routinely sent clothes to her West African relatives and friends who couldn't afford them.

Her death left her family bereft - and struggling.

"Roseline Conteh provided support not only for her immediate family, but also her extended family, including people back in Sierra Leone where she came from, so her loss is felt every day not only emotionally but also financially," said Wigrizer, who also represents her relatives in a wrongful-death lawsuit.

That grief has been aggravated by immigration headaches.

Conteh's husband, Aiah Boya, and a son who lived in Sierra Leone when she died missed her funeral because they couldn't get emergency visas in time. Boya, here now, isn't sure how long he'll stay and hasn't been able to get a job because of his unresolved immigration status, Wigrizer said.

"We have asked for humanitarian relief so that he can stay and see this [lawsuit] through," Wigrizer said.

Juanita Harmon

Juanita Harmon, 75, loved a good bargain. That's what drew her to the Salvation Army thrift shop.

Harmon was a mother of four grown sons and a retired secretary at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. The Wynnefield woman also loved animals and doted on her dog, adopted from a local shelter.

Her sons didn't respond to an interview request made through their lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi.

Kim Finnegan

Bubbly, adventurous, a raven-haired beauty. That was Kimberly Jean Finnegan.

The 35-year-old had planned to marry her fiancee, Bob Coleman, this spring, and have kids soon after. He proposed at his Roxborough house in May 2013, just before the couple headed to Atlantic City to see a Pitbull concert.

Their lives were perfectly intertwined. He worked as a driver who made deliveries for the Salvation Army, and she worked at the company's rehabilitation center in Roxborough.

But then Finnegan transferred to the Salvation Army shop at 22nd and Market for better hours. Her first day was June 5.

Bob Coleman previously told the Daily News that he was driving to New Jersey to make a delivery when he got a call from a supervisor who shared the horrific news about the collapse.

He tried desperately to get back to the city, to the scene of the catastrophe, but his truck broke down.

"She wasn't just my fiancee," Coleman said after she died. "She was my best friend. It was me and her."

Ronald Wagenhoffer

The boy approaches a photo of his family every night before bed.

The 3-D picture, housed in a crystal, lights up. Bringing the image to life is the boy's sacred routine.

"Good night, Dad," Luke Wagenhoffer, 8, says to the photo. "I love you and miss you very much."

Luke's father, Ronald Wagenhoffer, fatally shot himself a week after the collapse.

Wagenhoffer, a veteran building inspector at the Department of Licenses & Inspections, had been assigned to the demolition site.

City officials have maintained that Wagenhoffer was not to blame for the building collapse, but Michele Wagenhoffer said her husband was consumed with grief over the tragedy.

"It had such an impact on his life that he took his own," she said. "If nobody died that day, Ron would still be here today."

Wagenhoffer hid his inner torment from his family. While reeling from the shock of his suicide, his relatives also had to contend with news reports speculating on whether Wagenhoffer assigned himself blame in a video that he recorded in his final moments. (He didn't.)

"I still think Ron's coming back," Michele said. "I haven't moved his clothes or gotten rid of anything. It just doesn't feel real."

Michele said her husband took great pride in his job at L&I and was a perfectionist, down to the tiniest of details.

She remembers their first date, 18 years ago: Wagenhoffer grabbed a telescope, a guitar and some beer, and the couple huddled under the stars in a city park.

Michele said she still finds herself looking up at the sky sometimes. "I just say, 'How did you leave us? Where did that come from?' "


On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

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