Philadelphia building collapse: Was demolition being done correctly?

The Philadelphia building collapse that killed six and injured 14 happened as the building was being demolished. Eyewitness accounts offer clues into what might have gone wrong.

Jordan McLaughlin/AP
Emergency personnel respond to a building collapse on the edge of downtown Philadelphia on Wednesday. A building that was being torn down collapsed in an accident that witnesses said was bound to happen.

Search-and-rescue efforts continue Thursday at the site of a Philadelphia building that collapsed during demolition Wednesday, killing six and injuring 14, as new eyewitness reports emerge that call into question whether the demolition was being done properly.

Authorities have not officially ended the search but have identified all those reported to be missing after spending much of the night combing through bricks and rubble with buckets and their bare hands.

"We're going to keep searching until we're absolutely sure no one else is there," Philadelphia battalion fire chief Charles Lupre said shortly before dawn.

The cause of the sudden collapse, which occurred at 22nd and Market streets in Philadelphia's busy Center City district, is under investigation, according to city officials.  

Nearby construction workers were widely quoted in the media as questioning the safety of the demolition site for weeks before the event, but there are no reports that they voiced their concern to authorities.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told The Philadelphia Inquirer that demolition directly next to operating commercial or residential properties is common.

"There are demolitions taking place on a daily basis," said Mayor Nutter. "So it's not unusual that there would be people in a store or building next to where a demolition is taking place.

Eyewitness accounts of the collapse said heavy machinery played a part in the collapse.  

One witness, Dan Gillis of Cinnaminson, N.J., a construction worker on a job across the street, told Reuters that he saw a crane remove a supporting beam from the front of the building and then the wall next to the thrift store started to sway.

Jeffrey Fehnel of Philadelphia told Reuters that a backhoe hit the rear side of the building at about the same time.

"The building came down. It was like a big blast," he said.

One demolition expert, Stephen Estrin, a Florida contractor who has testified as an expert at several trials involving building collapses, questioned whether the demolition was being done by hand or with machinery.

"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," Mr. Estrin told the Associated Press. "One of the problems with claw work is it sets up a vibration in the walls."

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

Rescuers were buoyed late Wednesday night when they found a 61-year old woman still alive after nearly 13 hours under rubble. She was transported to a local hospital where she is listed in critical condition.

Of the other 13 people injured and taken to local hospitals, five had been released as of Wednesday afternoon, reports CNN.

Questions are also emerging about the demolition contractor, who has a record of legal and financial problems.

The Associated Press reports that records show that Mr. Campbell was charged in 2005 with dealing crack cocaine near a playground. The charges were dismissed after prosecutors misplaced evidence.

The AP report also points to other troubles. Campbell pleaded guilty in an insurance fraud case in 2009 and was acquitted of aggravated assault and related offenses in 2007. He 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.

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