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 Center City 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.”
At least six survivors have filed lawsuits against the contractor and building 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.
After the collapse, Hill heard another co-worker calling, “somebody help me, please, somebody help.”
Robert Mongeluzzi, the attorney for Hill and five other survivors, said Hill is emotionally scarred but lucky.
“There were six people that weren’t so lucky,” he added.
Police allege a heavy equipment operator, Sean Benschop, was high on marijuana when the collapse happened Wednesday. His attorney said it was an accident and his client is not responsible.
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 currently charged in the collapse and is being held without bail pending a hearing June 26.
“Philadelphians have no shortage of opinions of the many people that should be held responsible for the perceived actions and inactions that may have played a role in the chain of events that led to the building collapsing,” Williams said.
“While some may be held responsible in civil court, the role of the grand jury will be to hear from witnesses, to gather documents, to gather information and to then determine if anyone (else) should be held criminally responsible.”
The grand jury will likely also “investigate the myriad municipal agencies and departments, and policies and protocols, surrounding the collapse,” he said.
Also Monday, 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.
Unsafe construction work is a common issue in Philadelphia, and “unfortunately, it took such a tragic event for us to finally do something about it,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke said.
Councilman Jim Kenney, who is the chair of the committee, said safety standards are sometimes not met for the sake of costs.
“There is an underground economy that’s grown up as a result of the issue relative to the cost of construction,” Kenney said. “The cost of the construction should not trump safety.”
Kenney also said there needs to be better coordination between the building inspectors and the revenue department, which could help “track down these unscrupulous and unlicensed and non-tax-paying entities.”
Since the 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 regulation of building demolition.
A demolition permit indicates that contractor Griffin Campbell was being paid $10,000 for the job. Campbell’s lawyer, Kenneth Edelin, has advised Campbell not to comment to the media, said a woman who answered the phone at Campbell’s home. Building owner Richard Basciano’s attorney declined to comment.
Memorial services began over the weekend for some of the victims, who included a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a retired secretary and a Liberian immigrant and longtime store employee.
A 61-year-old woman pulled from the rubble more than 12 hours after the collapse was upgraded Monday from critical to serious condition, said a spokeswoman at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Another victim remained hospitalized at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital but his condition was not immediately available.
The 11 other survivors are all out of the hospital.