Lead contractor, Griffin Campbell, was on site the morning of last week's deadly building collapse in Philadelphia, but he didn't see or hear anything that signaled danger to him -- did not see what witnesses told police they saw -- an excavator working on the very wall that collapsed.
"He didn't stop it because he didn't see it," Ken Edelin, Campbell's attorney, said today. "He is absolutely not responsible."
Edelin gave his first public comments today in defense of his client.
He said Campbell followed both local and federal guidelines during the project and had all the necessary licenses and permits. No one from the City or federal government threw up a red flag at any point to stop the demolition, Edelin says. The site was inspected and cleared by three entities -- Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] and an engineer for the Salvation Army, according to Edelin.
"All three visited the site after the demolition had started," Edelin said. "Obviously the demolition was allowed to continue. There were no citations issued. There were no orders given to stop work. Everything was found to be fine and operating as it should be."
Campbell was hired to demolish the four-story building at 2136 Market Street. That building sat right next to a Salvation Army thrift store. Around 10:40 in the morning, the building under demolition crumpled onto the thrift store. The family half-price sale was underway. Six people were killed and thirteen others injured.
The excavator operator working for Campbell, Kane R. Roberts, a.k.a. Sean Benschop, is accused of knocking part of the wall away that day with an excavator. Legal and structural experts maintain that older structures like that should be torn down hand-by-hand.
"That demolition always had to be done hand-by-hand," Edelin countered. "The excavator was not to be used on that part of the building."
Edelin was asked repeatedly how a contractor like Campbell, who has more than 20 years of experience, could have physically been on site that day and not see or hear an excavator at work.
"He was on the site, he was not right there where the wall was, he was not right there where the excavator was and he did not give anyone permission to use that excavator on the building," Edelin said. "The equipment was to be used to remove debris, which is the only reason he had it there for that day, and that is the only order that he gave."
Roberts, a.k.a. Benschop has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter. He is the only person charged in the case. The District Attorney's office says he was under the influence of a controlled substance on the morning of the collapse and not in any condition to operate heavy machinery. DA Seth Williams yesterday announced he was turning the investigation over to a grand jury, which means it will likely be weeks or even months before recommendations will be made on whether any other parties should face criminal charges.
When asked why Campbell hired Roberts, a.k.a. Benschop, Edelin said if Benschop was good enough to work for the City of Philadelphia, why wouldn't he be good enough to work for Campbell.
"Mr. Benschop has extensive experience," Edelin said. "And he has had several, if not hundreds of projects for the City of Philadelphia where he has done demolition."
A check of records with the City of Philadelphia just this morning shows that Roberts, a.k.a. Benschop is still approved by the City for demolition work.
Edelin said Campbell cooperated with police on-site after the collapse, was traumatized that day like others and has not been in any emotional state to return to work.
"My client is, I would say, despondent is the best word." Edelin said Campbell grieves for the victims and their families.
Six of the victims have filed suit against Campbell and the building's owner, Richard Basciano and STB Investments, claiming negligence and accusing the contractor of failing to follow government guidelines to ensure safety. The law firm representing those victims, Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky, was quick to respond to Edelin's contention that the lead contractor bears no responsibility.
"It was shocking to learn today from counsel for the demolition contractor that the building owner and owner of the contracting company were on site the day of this tragedy yet failed to observe and correct the obvious safety hazards," attorneys said in a statement. "This underscores that the safety failures on the project occurred from the top down, at all levels of the safety hierarchy."
Investigators searched Roberts, a.k.a. Benschop's home last Friday and on Monday served a search warrant at the North Philadelphia home where Campbell lives. From Benschop's home they took a computer hard drive, files and paperwork. From Campbell's home, they took one box, which Edelin said contained work documents.
Basicano and his company, through their attorney, said they do not plan to comment during the investigation.