PHILADELPHIA – The city’s top prosecutor announced a grand jury was being convened to investigate a building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 others, including a woman who on Monday described hearing the sound of falling bricks moments before the walls came crashing down around her.
District Attorney Seth Williams said the scope and depth of the grand jury process will help prosecutors, the city and others to “completely and appropriately investigate” what happened when a downtown building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring Salvation Army Thrift Store, killing two employees and four customers.
“I know Philadelphians demand action. I heard their voices loud and clear,” Williams said at Monday’s news conference. “We want Philadelphians to be patient as we gather all the evidence.”
Meanwhile, police detectives on Monday visited the north Philadelphia home of general contractor Griffin Campbell, who had been hired to demolish the four-story building that collapsed. A handful of investigators emerged from the home about 45 minutes later, carrying a box. Police and prosecutors earlier declined to comment on reports of a search of the home.
Campbell’s attorney issued a statement defending his record and the qualifications of an excavator operator charged in the case, urging that there be no “rush to judgment.”
Attorney Kenneth Edelin said in a statement that Campbell was “confident that the results of the investigation will reveal that professional and safety-conscious business practices were in place.” He said he believes his client will be cleared of responsibility for the tragedy.
Edelin said Campbell has more than 20 years in the construction business and four years in demolition and earlier successfully demolished several nearby buildings. He said excavator operator Sean Benschop was hired because of his “extensive experience” in demolition.
But he said Campbell never instructed the excavator to be used for the demolition that day. Because the company didn’t have access to the thrift store roof, he said, “the demolition of the wall closest to the thrift store was being done brick by brick.”
Edelin said federal and city inspectors and inspectors on behalf of the thrift store visited the site after demolition began “and gave the site a clean bill of health.”
Benschop surrendered Saturday to face six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of risking a catastrophe. He is the only person charged in the collapse and is being held without bail pending a hearing June 26. His attorney said the building collapse was an accident and his client is not responsible.
At least six survivors have filed lawsuits against the contractor and the building’s owner. One of them, Felicia Hill, said Monday that she heard bricks falling and looked at another co-worker just moments before the ceiling collapsed with the weight of bricks and debris.
“And then the wall came down, and I didn’t see her anymore,” Hill said of Kimberly Finnegan, who was killed on her first day of work at the thrift store.
Williams said the grand jury likely will “investigate the myriad municipal agencies and departments, and policies and protocols, surrounding the collapse.”
Also Monday, the City Council announced the formation of a special committee to conduct a broad review of procedures and regulations regarding licenses and permits, construction and demolition, the certification of workers, building maintenance and other issues.
Since the June 3 collapse, officials have begun inspecting hundreds of demolition sites citywide. Mayor Michael Nutter said Friday that the city was preparing to implement sweeping changes in its regulations of building demolition.
Memorial services began over the weekend for some of the victims.