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Salvation Army collapse: Demo and negotiations took too long

12/27/2013 | Construction Blog, Real Estate Blog

We continue to learn more about the circumstances leading up to the Salvation Army Thrift Shop disaster. As most of Philadelphia knows, a wall at a demolition site adjacent to the Salvation Army site collapsed on June 5, 2013, killing six and injuring more than a dozen other people in the store at the time.

A grand jury investigating the collapse recently delivered documents to city prosecutors that confirm what evidence released earlier, particularly emails, hinted at. As the demolition of the building at 2136-38 Market Street progressed, the pressure mounted to finish the job quickly. And, as the demolition progressed, negotiations over safety measures moved at a snail’s pace, if they moved at all.

According to the email excerpts published by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the demolition was supposed to have been completed by the end of April. On April 29, the principal of STB of New York City, the site’s owner of record, saw for himself that the crew was behind. He expressed his extreme displeasure to his property manager, who passed the message along. When the owner visited again toward the end of May, six days before the collapse, the building was still standing. There were no explanations for the delay.

In the next few days, the demolition contractor brought in an 18-ton excavator to expedite the project. The Salvation Army knew nothing about the machine; in retrospect, the organization said it would have “done something” if it had known ahead of time.

On June 4, the project architect saw for himself the precarious situation with the unsupported wall. He was acting as the local liaison to the contractor, and when the two met earlier in the day, the contractor asked that he stop by the site to take some progress photographs. The contractor wanted to speed up payment of the incentives promised him if he sped up demolition.

The architect was alarmed by what he saw and, he said later, told the contractor to take the wall down immediately. Two workers mounted the structure to tear it down, but they accomplished very little. The next morning, the excavator went in.

Speed was just one element of the grand jury’s findings. The lack of speed in the negotiations — if not a general failure to communicate — was also a critical factor.

The investigation is not over. The grand jury may or may not hand down indictments (the contractor is already facing criminal charges). If there are lessons to learn, they came at a high cost.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, “Owners pressed for faster demolition before fatal collapse,” Bob Warner, Dec. 17, 2013