Rita's tragedy: Freak accident or shoddy work?

Police Crime Scene officer Bob Flade (right) photographs one of the 10 holes in the facade of the building that houses the Rita's Water Ice on Girard Avenue Sunday, June 29, 2014, the day after a security gate fell, crushing and killing 3 year-old Wynter Larkin during a fund-raising event. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Police Crime Scene officer Bob Flade (right) photographs one of the 10 holes in the facade of the building that houses the Rita's Water Ice on Girard Avenue Sunday, June 29, 2014, the day after a security gate fell, crushing and killing 3 year-old Wynter Larkin during a fund-raising event. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 01, 2014

IT SOUNDED like a shotgun blast and was equally deadly - an entire ton of rolled-up metal plummeting from the front of a Rita's Water Ice onto the sidewalk of Girard Avenue.

Wynter Larkin was 3 years old. If she had been standing anywhere else in the world at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, even a couple of feet away, she might still be smiling as brightly as in the photo that was circulating yesterday.

Instead, Larkin was crushed by the 2,000-pound security gate after it somehow became dislodged from the building in Brewerytown. The gate was bolted in just below the red-and-white striped Rita's sign with the company slogan: "Ice. Custard. Happiness."

"We took it off her head and tried to put it back to the wall," said Michael El, the owner of the Chicken Master restaurant two doors down. "She was bleeding. It was too late to do anything."

Wynter, who was attending a fundraiser at Rita's for the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority with her mother, Cheryl, was transported to Hahnemann University Hospital and pronounced dead at 5:02 p.m., police said.

El said it took about 25 people to lift the gate off her. Pink and purple sorority and fraternity balloons remained attached after it fell. He suffered a minor injury to his shoulder as the crowd struggled to hold it up.

"It was like a gunshot," El said of the sound of the gate smacking the sidewalk.

But was it a "freak accident" on a hot summer day, or the deadly result of shoddy workmanship?

Police investigators were working it like a potential crime scene yesterday, placing numbered markers next to each of the wall's bolt holes, in the same way that they would identify bullet casings after a shootout.

They obtained a search warrant and sawed into the wall to determine whether the heavy gate had been properly installed, or whether the bolts were incorrectly anchored. The preliminary investigation found that the lag bolts might have been a few inches too short, according to a police source.

The Daily News was unable to reach the building's owners, P&G Property Development. But Carlton Williams, commissioner of the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections, said they were cooperating in the police investigation headed by the Central Detective Division.

El said Rita's employees would sometimes ask his delivery drivers for help closing the gate at night. He said that the gate was not securely attached to the wall and that the building owners should have been aware of the problem.

"It was loose," El said. "It was shaking."

Williams said security-gate maintenance is the responsibility of property owners under the city's Property Maintenance Code. He said L&I would inspect a gate only if it received a complaint. There is no evidence that a complaint had been filed with the department, he said.

"I don't have any record of that so far," Williams said yesterday, after reviewing data from the 3-1-1 city complaint line.

The building had a few past L&I violations, but they were resolved in 2011 and did not involve the security gate.

Wynter's parents, who live in Yeadon, Delaware County, requested privacy yesterday. The shop's parent company, Rita's Italian Ice, offered its condolences.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the child's family," said company spokeswoman Linda Duke. "Due to the current investigation we really cannot comment about the unfortunate incident."

Rebecca Jackson, who owns the Rita's with her husband, Kenny, was quoted in a 2010 Inquirer story about the revitalization of West Girard Avenue.

"Part of buying the building," she said, "was the gamble that this would turn into a neighborhood, a place where people could come, relax and enjoy."


On Twitter: @wbender99

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