The final survivor to be pulled from the rubble of the Center City building collapse, Mariya Plekan, has finally shared her version of what happened on that fateful day in June as she lay buried, for hours under the crushing weight of bricks and fear, screaming for help.
In a videotaped testimony provided to her attorneys Andy Stern and Elizabeth Crawford of Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter, Plekan recalled the moments before and after an adjacent building under demolition came tumbling down on the roof of the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market Street, where she had been shopping on June 5.
That morning, Plekan said she had caught the number 7 SEPTA bus to the corner of 22nd and Market Street, and did not notice any demolition work being done before she entered the store.
According to Plekan, no one told her it was unsafe to shop there or gave her any warnings that day; and it is a day, that Plekan said she remembers very well.
With the help of an interpreter, Plekan recalled seeing the building’s roof begin to collapse, and only having enough time to say, “Why,” before her legs were pinned beneath a beam and mounds of debris.
"All of a sudden I heard the noise, and all I had a chance to turn around and look and the roof went down," Plekan said.
“It was a little crack there, a blue little crack, and through that crack the light and the air was coming in. I had a hope that they will save me shortly. But it didn’t happen. And I was there for a long time. I was screaming, 'Help, help.' But nobody heard me.”
Around midnight, a firefighter pulled Plekan from the rubble after crews had been searching the site for survivors for more than 12 hours.
"I heard the dog was barking and coming up. And I started to scream 'Help' again, and the dog followed my yell," Plekan said. "And they started pulling things apart and they pulled me out."
Plekan was one of 13 survivors. The collapse killed six others.
She was later taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where she endured numerous surgeries, including the removal of both of her legs.
“It was suffering,” Plekan said of her five month hospital stay. “Constant operations…constant pain. Pain, pain, pain; and that pain is still going on.”
Plekan said she lived alone and was in perfect health before the collapse. Testimony documents included photos of Plekan enjoying trips to local museums and walking around taking pictures of historical places in the City; some of her favorite activities prior to losing her legs.
Plekan said adjusting to life as a double amputee is a daily struggle.
"Everyday I understand how hard it is to be without legs. When you cannot take care of yourself, when you constantly depend on other people to take care of you, and I do not know how to live after that because it’s so hard for me," she said.
Stern is one of two attorneys representing Plekan in a lawsuit against the Salvation Army and others involved in the collapse. He compared Plekan’s injuries to that of a soldier at war.
"She ultimately had literally half of her body removed by amputation. I'm talking about bi-lateral amputations, up to her hip. She's actually had her hip joints removed; she experienced renal failure, been on dialysis for month," Stern said.
"The type of injuries she has sustained is the type of injuries you would expect someone on a battlefield."
In August, a judge put all lawsuits resulting from the collapse on hold indefinitely pending the conclusion of a criminal grand jury investigation. Considering the severity of Plekan’s injuries, Stern filed a motion asking the judge to have Plekan's testimony preserved before trial. The judge approved that motion, but until now, Plekan was too ill to provide her testimony.
Plekan was released from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania last week and is now in rehabilitation.
Twice widowed, Plekan came to the United States from the Ukraine nearly 12 years ago to care for her husband’s sick aunt. She’s been a resident of the Kensington neighborhood since 2002.
Plekan said her two children, Andrew and Natalie, who have been flying back and forth from their homes in the Ukraine to support her through the recovery process, are her strength.
"My children and my granddaughter, because of them I want to live," she said. "I want to live."