A building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 has brought swift and mounting fallout in a city where demolition contractors are lightly regulated, with a plaintiff's lawyer calling it an entirely preventable tragedy that resulted from gross recklessness on the job site.
One day after the tragedy, Philadelphia officials began inspecting hundreds of demolition sites citywide, the first of what could be several lawsuits was filed, and a criminal investigation appeared to get under way as rescuers ended their painstaking search through the rubble for survivors and victims.
The chief of the district attorney's homicide unit and a veteran homicide prosecutor were spotted amid the debris of the four-story building, which toppled onto an attached Salvation Army thrift shop along Philadelphia's busy Market Street on Wednesday morning, trapping employees and others. The dead included a woman working her first day at the store.
A lawsuit filed late Thursday seeks financial damages on behalf of Nadine White, who was buried in rubble but survived.
"This is the most egregious construction accident I think I've ever been involved in," said White's attorney, Robert Mongeluzzi, who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in construction mishaps and is considered one of the nation's top lawyers in that field.
Mongeluzzi said demolition contractor Griffin Campbell violated several federal safety regulations, while building owner Richard Basciano should have picked a more qualified and competent contractor to do the work.
"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," said Mongeluzzi, who has asked a Philadelphia judge for an emergency order to allow him to access and inspect the collapse site. A ruling could be issued as early as Friday.
Messages left for Basciano and his local agent after business hours Thursday were not immediately returned. Campbell's voicemail was full, but his daughter said earlier in the day that he was devastated by what happened.
The city, meanwhile, began inspecting hundreds of demolition sites in the wake of the collapse. 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 sites and ordered a halt to the work.
Campbell has 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 he wasn't there but was "mourning the loss of those people just like everyone else."
As details of Campbell's checkered legal and financial past came to light, a city councilman charged that dangerous, under-the-radar tear-downs are taking place throughout the city and demanded a stricter application and inspection process for demolition companies.
Councilman James Kenney, among others, called for a review of the city's demolition application and inspection process.
"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," Mayor Michael 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."