PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A top Philadelphia official says the man who was allegedly high while operating demolition equipment when a downtown building collapsed will be charged in the deaths of the six people killed in the rubble.
Sean Benschop, who’s also known as Kary Roberts, faces six counts of involuntary manslaughter, six counts of risking catastrophe and other charges.
Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison says police have raided Benschop’s home but have not found him.
Authorities say the 42-year-old was using an excavator Wednesday when what was left of the four-story building gave way and fell on top of a neighboring Salvation Army store. Gillison says a toxicology report shows Benschop was high on marijuana that day.
Court records show Benschop has been arrested 11 times on charges including theft, assault, firearms violations and drug offenses.
The four-story building toppled onto the thrift store on Philadelphia’s busy Market Street, killing six people, including a woman working her first day at the store. Thirteen people were injured.
The collapse also has the city preparing to implement sweeping changes in its regulations of building demolition, Mayor Michael Nutter said Friday, adding that every active demolition site is being inspected for safety.
The planned changes include all new requirements for demolition, including site safety plans, inspections by engineers and prohibitions on the use of machinery if the site is next to an occupied building. Other proposed changes would include mandatory drug testing for heavy machinery operators and background checks.
“We will not accept the status quo in the face of this tragedy,” Nutter said.
He said he had no updated information on the crane operator who was working at the time of the collapse or about what specifically occurred before the building came down, but the city will conduct “a complete and thorough investigation of what happened and what didn’t happen … in the days, weeks and months before Wednesday’s building collapse,” he said.
Some accusations of responsibility were lobbed at demolition contractor Griffin Campbell.
Campbell violated several federal safety regulations, while building owner Richard Basciano should have picked a more qualified and competent contractor to do the work, said Robert Mongeluzzi, another of White’s attorneys.
“This is the most egregious construction accident I think I’ve ever been involved in,” said Mongeluzzi, who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in construction accidents and is considered a top lawyer in the field.
The lawyers received permission Friday from a judge to bring in experts to videotape and photograph the continuing demolition work by the city from a safe distance. Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler ruled that once the site is deemed safe, experts for all parties can inspect the remaining debris.
Campbell has previously been arrested on charges involving drugs, assault and insurance fraud and has had two bankruptcy filings. His daughter, Dominique Lee, who answered the door at his home, said Thursday that he wasn’t there but was “mourning the loss of those people just like everyone else.”
“From what we can understand, given (Campbell’s) checkered past, and what appears to be a total lack of experience and know-how, we believe that was a grossly negligent selection,” Mongeluzzi said Thursday.
A man who answered the phone Friday at Campbell’s home said he was not home, and Campbell’s cellphone voicemail box was full. Peter Greiner, attorney for Basciano, was in a meeting Friday and did not immediately return a call.
The collapse has brought swift and mounting fallout in a city where demolition contractors are lightly regulated. Officials have begun inspecting hundreds of demolition sites citywide, and a city councilman charged that dangerous, under-the-radar tear-downs are taking place throughout Philadelphia.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections said it had 300 open demolition permits throughout the city; inspectors had visited about 30 of the sites by Thursday afternoon and planned to get to the rest by next week.
The spot inspections included all four construction and demolition sites connected to Campbell. The city found violations at two of the Campbell sites and ordered a halt to the work.
Councilman James Kenney, among others, called for a review of the demolition application and inspection process and demanded a stricter process for demolition companies.
“This is happening all over the city,” he said. “I need to know who the workers are who are there, what they know, what they don’t know, how they’ve been trained.”
The city does check the condition of buildings to be torn down before demolition can begin — and inspects them again after the tear-down is finished — but does not require an inspection during demolition. A pre-demolition inspection at the site on May 14 turned up no issues, said Carlton Williams, head of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Pennsylvania does not license demolition contractors, nor does the city. Williams said the city code does not require demolition contractors to show any proficiency in tearing down buildings.
“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,” Nutter said Thursday. “Something obviously went wrong here yesterday and possibly in the days leading up to it. That’s what the investigation is for.”
Nutter said he was unaware of any complaints about the demolition work done by Campbell in the days before the tragedy. But the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it had gotten a complaint May 15 that workers at the site were at risk of falling. The complaint was still open at the time of the disaster, U.S. Labor Department spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson said.
OSHA regulates the demolition industry and enforces standards meant to ensure worker safety. Among other things, its regulations forbid any wall section exceeding one story to stand alone without bracing, unless the wall was designed that way. Witnesses have said they saw a 30-foot section of unbraced wall before the collapse.
A video of the demolition taken the Sunday before the collapse showed bricks raining down on the sidewalk as a worker used a backhoe and claw to remove a second-story front wall.
The sidewalk and the staircase leading up from a subway stop appeared open to pedestrians despite the falling bricks. Cars and trucks could also be seen going past, just a few feet away.
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