Equipment Operator Was High in Philly Disaster, Victim Says
By GINA CARRANO
PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A heavy machine operator was high on drugs during the botched demolition of a downtown building that killed six people and hurt at least 14 in Philadelphia, an injured woman claims in court.
Shirley Ball sued five businesses and three people in the Court of Common Pleas.
Ball claims the defendants negligently supervised defendant crane operator Sean Benschop, whom they hired for $10,000, knowing that a skilled contractor would have charged much more.
The 35-page complaint makes some devastating allegations.
"Investigations performed after the building collapse revealed that:
"a. Sean Benschop, aka Kary Roberts, the operator of the excavator, a piece of heavy equipment, was under the influence of codeine, marijuana, and possibly other drugs at the time of the accident;
"b. Sean Benschop, aka Kary Roberts was wearing a cast on his arm while operating the excavator;
"c. Sean Benschop, aka Kary Roberts had previously been arrested at least ten (10) times on charges including drugs, theft, firearms, and assault;
"d. Sean Benschop, aka Kary Roberts has been convicted sixteen (16) times mostly for driving without a license or insurance, and for operating an unregistered vehicle;
"e. Sean Benschop, aka Kary Roberts served two (2) prison terms for drug convictions;
"f. The owner or operator of the demolition company also has a criminal record stemming from a phony car wreck scheme, according to court records;
"g. As long as one (1) month before the collapse, concerned citizens were complaining of the unsafe conditions of the demolition to the City of Philadelphia’s 311 hotline;
"h. There was a lack of bracing and/or shoring to prevent substantial damage to adjacent buildings; and
"i. As long as two (2) weeks before the collapse, a crack developed in the wall inside the bathroom of the Salvation Army Thrift Store which was so large that daylight could be seen from inside the store.
"On June 5, 2013, plaintiff was a patron and business invitee on the premises of the Salvation Army Thrift Store located at 2140 Market Street, when the walls collapsed, which buried her beneath debris and rubble, causing plaintiff to suffer personal injuries, emotional distress and other damages as detailed herein," according to the complaint.
The botched June 5 demolition caused on of the walls to fall outward onto the Salvation Army Thrift Store next door. The walls of the thrift store collapsed, pinning patrons and employees under rubble and debris.
Defendants named as responsible for the safety of the demolition are Richard Basciano, STB Investments Corp., Griffin Campbell, Griffin Campbell Construction, Nicetown House Development Corp., Plato Studio, and Plato Marinakos Jr.
Defendants Basciano and STB Investments owned the building. Bass and her husband also sued the Salvation Army.
Benschop has been criminally charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter and 13 counts of reckless endangerment, many newspapers reported, including The New York Times.
Many other people have announced their intentions to sue by filing summonses for personal injury claims. Several of them are represented by Robert Mongeluzzi, with Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky
Mayor Michael Nutter has called for Benschop to get a stiff punishment.
"Justice will only be served if Sean Benschop receives a sentence that buries him in a jailhouse forever, just like his victims were buried on Wednesday," Nutter said, according to The Associated Press.
Demolition of Watuppa Heights begins; new homes to be built
FALL RIVER —
Niagara neighborhood residents John and Donna Hollenback walked around the ruins of the former Watuppa Heights housing development as an excavator crawled onto the site to begin demolishing one of the buildings.
“I came here to see it with my own eyes,” John Hollenback said.
“This has been a vacant eyesore. It’s time to have it gone,” Donna Hollenback said.
Attempts to close down the now decrepit complex of 28 buildings on 10 acres — built in 1952 to house World War II veterans and their families — started in the 1970s. The last family moved out in 2011.
Since then, the Fall River Housing Authority has been working with the state Department Housing and Community Development to raze the property and plan to have it redeveloped to provide low- and moderate-income housing.
The demolition officially started Wednesday, with a gathering of local and state leaders and a handful of curious neighbors.
For Dino Bissaro, of the Niagara Neighborhood Association, the day was a long time coming.
“Look at it. How would anyone feel looking at this every day for the last 20 years?” said Bissaro, pointing to the boarded up buildings, some of them scarred from fires.
“I’m a doubting Thomas, but I can believe it now,” Bissaro said.
Over the years, the development has been a source of crime, drugs and arson.
Fall River police Lt. Paul Bernier took a survey of the overgrown and blighted grounds before demolition began.
The veteran police officer has a long professional history with the housing project, having served there as a Community Service Officer in 1976. Through the years, he’s responded to many calls there.
Now, as the police department’s fire investigator, Bernier has worked arson cases as recently as last winter.
Bernier agreed Watuppa Heights was a danger to the neighborhood. Just weeks ago, police made arrests when people were caught stealing copper piping from one of the structures, he said.
Demolition and remediation will be done in three phases, said George Naslas, vice president of environmental services for Weston & Sampson. Abatement to remove asbestos and other environmental hazards will be done first, then the building will be demolished and the site restored.
Once abatement work is done, Naslas said, it won’t be long before the buildings are gone.
Fall River Housing Authority Executive Director David Sullivan said plans to redevelop the property include 50 apartment units and single-family homes for ownership.
The cost to demolish and remediate the property is $898,000 and paid for by the DHCD, Sullivan said.
Mayor Will Flanagan called the case with Watuppa “a saga that has been going on for 10 years. ”
Having the housing project initially built for returning veterans, the neighborhood was once full of life and vibrancy, Flanagan said.
In early 2000, a previous administration approved the demolition of the site, “with many chapters written.”
“Many stories, good stories, can be told by people who lived on the site,” Flanagan said. "But here we are today with the people who all played a role in getting to where we are today, and the demolition begins.”
Once plans are completed for the project and given DHCD approval, the project can be advertised in a request for proposals.
Lizbeth Heyer, associate director of public housing and rental assistance, said it’s typical for a similar project to take two to four years to complete.
Because the project is still in the planning stage and has not gone out for bids, Heyer said she didn’t know its cost. She said the price tag could be between $15 million to $20 million.