PHILADELPHIA – A contractor was onsite for a building demolition in Philadelphia last week but isn't to blame for the collapse of a four-story brick wall that killed six people inside an adjacent store, his lawyer said Tuesday.
Contractor Griffin Campbell feels "despondent" over the deaths, lawyer Kenneth Edelin said.
Authorities believe an excavator was being used to knock down the 40-foot wall, but Edelin insisted his client wanted the wall taken down by hand because of the Salvation Army thrift store next door, which remained open.
Though he was at the site talking to building owner Richard Basciano when the wall collapsed June 5, Campbell wasn't in a position to see whether heavy equipment was being used.
"He was on the site, (but) he was not right there where the wall was, he was not right there where the excavator was," Edelin said at a news conference, marking the first extensive response to the collapse on Campbell's behalf.
Edelin said that when the collapse occurred, Campbell "was scared to death like everyone else."
The presence of Campbell and Basciano at the scene shows "they were much more hands-on than everybody thought," said lawyer Andrew Duffy, who represents some of the survivors who have filed lawsuits against the contractors and Basciano.
Campbell had hired subcontractor Sean Benschop for the demolition. Benschop, 42, has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter by prosecutors who said he had marijuana and painkillers in his system and was impaired. He also had a cast on his right hand due to a prior injury.
Campbell has more than 20 years in the construction business and four years in demolition, and hired Benschop because of his "extensive experience" in demolition, Edelin said.
A grand jury has been convened to investigate whether anyone else should be criminally charged. Campbell talked to police the day of the collapse but may not cooperate with the grand jury if he becomes a suspect in the case, Edelin said.
Benschop, 42, is being held without bail pending a June 26 court hearing. His lawyer has said he should not be the only person held responsible.
According to Duffy, photographs and physical evidence of the site disprove any claim that heavy equipment was only being used to remove debris. A YouTube video taken the Sunday before the collapse shows a machine with a claw being used to knock down the facade, and bricks raining down on the open sidewalk.
"Their whole claim is that they were removing this brick by brick, from the top down. That is defied ... by the physical evidence. In order to do that, you need scaffolding or a working platform," Duffy said. "There's no way that was being done."
Asked at the news conference how workers removed bricks 40 feet above ground without scaffolding, Edelin said "they were probably walking on the joists and the beams."
Bricks were falling on the thrift store roof in the weeks before the collapse, said survivor Felicia Hill, a shop worker.
It's not clear whether anyone at the store reported that, but at least one person called a city hotline in May to report concerns that the project appeared to be unsafe. According to Edelin, Campbell could not put a net or scaffolding on the store because the Salvation Army denied him access to the roof.
However, he said the job was nonetheless safe, and said inspectors from the city and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with an engineer hired by the Salvation Army, checked on the demolition and issued no citations or stop work orders.
Campbell had bid $122,000 for the job, Edelin said, despite a city permit that puts the cost at $10,000. The lawyer said he did not know how much Campbell was paying Benschop to carry out the work.