Search goes on after Pa. building collapse; 6 dead

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Rescue workers at site of building collapse, Philadelphia. (AP Photo)

Rescue workers at site of building collapse, Philadelphia. (AP Photo)

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — As a bulldozer began to clear away the debris of a collapsed building that killed six people, city officials said a search for the dead and injured was nearly complete Thursday and an investigation had already begun to determine how a relatively commonplace demolition job could have gone so wrong.

Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said crews still need to search about 20 percent of the site of the collapse, including the back of a thrift store onto which the vacant four-story building under demolition collapsed, an effort that was expected to last through the afternoon.

Firefighters were hosing down piles of bricks as heavy machinery scooped up massive piles of debris and filled a large receptacle to be trucked away. Inside what was left of the Salvation Army thrift store, an undisturbed rack of clothing remained standing in a rear corner.

Rescue efforts were buoyed early Thursday when a 61-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble alive and conscious 13 hours after the collapse. That woman, Myra Plekam, was hospitalized in critical condition and has floated in and out of consciousness. At least 14 others were hurt, many with minor injuries.

“That’s why we stay the course,” Ayers said. “This person being pulled out alive is what this rescue operation is all about.”

Workers combed through bricks and rubble using buckets and their bare hands well into the night.

It was unclear what role the demolition work might have played in the collapse, but the accident raised questions about how closely the highly visible spot on Market Street, one of Philadelphia’s signature boulevards, was being monitored, particularly amid word of the demolition contractor’s many legal and financial troubles. Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were at the scene.

“Buildings get demolished all the time in the city of Philadelphia with active buildings right next to them … they’re done safely in this city all the time,” Mayor Michael Nutter said at a news conference late Thursday morning. “Something obviously went wrong here yesterday, and possibly in the days leading up to it. That’s what the investigation is for.”

Officials said every demolition project gets two inspections — one before work begins and a second when most of the building is down. The building that collapsed was one of three being taken down. Officials said they received a complaint in early May when the neighboring building was being demolished. An inspector visited the site on May 14 and found no violations, officials said. They said the building that collapsed was still fully intact on the date of that inspection.

For weeks, people working nearby had watched with growing concern as a crew took down the vacant four-story building next to a Salvation Army thrift store at the edge of downtown.

A roofer atop another building didn’t think the operation looked safe. A pair of window washers across the street spotted an unbraced, 30-foot section of wall and predicted among themselves the whole building would simply fall down.

On Wednesday, that’s what happened. The unstable shell of a building collapsed into a massive heap of bricks and splintered wood, taking part of the thrift store with it.

Witnesses said they heard a loud rumbling sound immediately before the collapse.

“I was standing there looking out my window, watching the men at work on the building, and the next thing I know I heard something go kaboom,” said Veronica Haynes, who was on the fifth floor of an apartment building across the street. “Then you saw the whole side of the wall fall down … onto the other building.”

Several other witnesses said they had questioned how the demolition workers were tackling the job.

Roofer Patrick Glynn said he had been watching workers take down the building over the past few weeks, and he said he suspected a collapse was inevitable because of the way they were going about it.

“For weeks they’ve been standing on the edge, knocking bricks off,” he said. “You could just see it was ready to go at any time. I knew it was going to happen.”

Steve Cramer, who has been working as a window washer across the street, said the demolition crew left 30 feet of a dividing wall up with no braces and it compromised the integrity of the building

“We’ve been calling it for the past week — it’s going to fall, it’s going to fall,” his co-worker Dan Gillis said.

Officials said the demolition contractor was Griffin Campbell Construction in Philadelphia. Messages left for Campbell were not returned.

Records show that Campbell was charged in 2005 with dealing crack cocaine near a playground. The charges were dismissed after prosecutors misplaced evidence.

He pleaded guilty in an insurance fraud case in 2009, and was acquitted of aggravated assault and related offenses in 2007.

Campbell has also filed for bankruptcy protection twice since 2010. The first bankruptcy was dismissed because he didn’t follow through on a repayment plan approved by the court. A second bankruptcy petition was filed in March.

There were no existing violations on the collapsed building, and Campbell had proper permits for the work being done, according to Carlton Williams, of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The city issued a demolition permit for the four-story structure on Feb. 1. Records show the property owner as STB Investments Corp., a company linked to prominent businessman and developer Richard Basciano, who has been best known as the owner of porn theaters in New York City and Philadelphia.

Messages left at the company’s New York offices were not immediately returned.

The accident happened on the western edge of downtown, between the city’s business district and its main train terminal, 30th Street Station. The block had long been a seedy link between gleaming skyscrapers and the busy area around the station.

The collapse involved an empty building that once housed a first-floor sandwich shop and apartments above. The thrift shop was on one side. The other side was an adult bookstore and theater that had been taken down within the last few months.

A demolition expert wondered what precautions were taken to protect the Salvation Army store, especially since it remained open. Stephen Estrin, a Florida contractor who has testified as an expert at several trials involving building collapses, also questioned whether the demolition was being done by hand or with machinery. A piece of equipment with a claw device was seen amid the debris Wednesday.

“This is an inner-city demolition of a masonry building, which would normally be done manually because of the inherent risk — predictable if certain things are not done very slowly and very carefully — of a collapse,” Estrin said. “One of the problems with claw work is it sets up a vibration in the walls.”

Records show the collapsed building was sold to STB in 1994 for $385,894. Plans tentatively called for the block to be redeveloped into retail stores and apartments.

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