Firm representing Phila. building collapse victims comments on video release; discrepancy over asbestos at site

By Jon Campisi | Jul 23, 2013

Lawyers representing survivors of the deadly June building collapse in

downtown Philadelphia, as well as the estates of those who perished in the tragic construction accident, issued a statement last week in response to the public release of the only known video taken of the disaster.

Attorneys from the Philadelphia firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky stated that the newly released video of the collapse, caught by cameras mounted inside a passing city bus, proves that the excavator operator who has been the only person criminally charged in the case was not the sole individual responsible for the incident.

“Using the video to correlate a photo from across Market Street, it can be proven that the photo was taken 10 seconds after the collapse and it is clear that the excavator arm is pointed away from the wall that collapsed,” the statement reads. “This means it is highly unlikely that the excavator operator did strike the wall that collapsed.”

Six people died and 13 were injured in the June 6 incident, which occurred after an un-braced wall from a building that was in the midst of being demolished toppled over an adjoining Salvation Army thrift store.

Blame was initially placed on Sean Benschop, the 42-year-old excavator operator who was found to have marijuana in his system at the time of the collapse.

Benschop has been charged by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office with six counts of involuntary manslaughter as well as 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person and causing and risking a catastrophe.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced last month that a grand jury would be impaneled to investigate the incident.

Grand juries conduct their business in secret.

Meanwhile, the Saltz Mongeluzzi statement said that the video released by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority last week supports the conclusion that the collapse was “not caused by an alleged drug crazed operator who knocked down the wall that collapsed with a battering ram, but because of the actions and inactions of the owner, Salvation Army and City who knew about a looming disaster and didn’t prevent it.”

Lawyer Mongeluzzi, a firm partner who along with fellow attorneys Larry Bendesky, Andrew Duffy and Jeffrey Goodman are representing a handful of victims in the case, stated that after viewing the SEPTA bus video and attending a special demolition process hearing before Philadelphia City Council last week, he has come to the conclusion that there needs to be a “full and open disclosure of the events leading up to the building collapse including the testimony of the owners, Salvation Army representatives and City officials all of whom were on notice of a tragedy waiting to happen and did not stop it from occurring.

“Out of respect for the victims and their families, that cannot happen soon enough.”

The statement goes on to say that the video of the incident further proves that the failure to properly plan an engineered demolition was the “responsibility – and the fault – of corporate owners and managers and not lower level functionaries who are being blamed by those who were in control from the outset of the project.”

Mongeluzzi also noted that there is no excavator arm shown in the SEPTA bus video depicting the collapse.

Recent news reports had stated that the city was initially opposed to having the SEPTA video released, citing the grand jury investigation, but that its lawyers soon changed course after the District Attorney’s Office determined the video would not hamper the investigation.

Those named as defendants in civil litigation stemming from the building collapse include Richard Basciano, the owner of the collapsed Market Street building; Basciano’s company, STB Investments Corp.; Griffin Campbell Construction, the company that was contracted to do the demolition work; and that company’s proprietor, Griffin T. Campbell.

In another twist, there appears to be conflicting testimony regarding the presence of asbestos at the site.

Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that contractors sifting through the rubble of the collapse located remnants of asbestos at the site, a discovery that raised questions about paperwork that had been filed by STB Investments in preparation for the demolition work.

In an inspection report submitted to city officials back in January, STB stated that there was no known asbestos in the buildings that were slated for demolition, while it was later discovered that a company hired by STB to clear the debris after the collapse had brought in a certified asbestos removal firm to do some work at the location.

The newspaper quoted Edward Nass, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in mass tort asbestos litigation, as saying that there likely wasn’t much to worry about, since it usually takes years of asbestos exposure to lead to someone developing an asbestos related disease such as mesothelioma.

Benjamin Shein, another Philadelphia-based plaintiffs’ attorney who focuses on asbestos civil litigation, was also quoted in the Inquirer as saying, “I would not have cause for concern.”

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