The family of a 24-year-old woman buried to death in the building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets has filed the first wrongful death lawsuit in the tragedy.
Mary Lea Simpson was shopping inside the Salvation Army Thrift Store with her best friend Anne Bryan on the morning of June 5 when a four-story brick door from next door, at 2136 Market Street, collapsed onto the store.
The suit, filed late Tuesday morning, says Simpson suffocated to death under the rubble of the building. Bryan also died along with five others. Thirteen additional people were hurt.
"Of the nineteen people trapped in the rubble, six died agonizing and painful deaths from asphyxiation," the suit alleges. "Mary Lea Simpson was one of those six."
Named in the filing are The Salvation Army, developer Richard Basciano, his company STB Investments, contractor Griffin Campbell, construction expediter and architect Plato Marinakos and excavator operator Sean Benschop a.k.a. Kary Roberts.
Steven Wigrizer, the attorney representing Simpson's family, tells NBC10.com The Salvation Army failed to protect its customers and employees knowing demolition work was going on at the adjacent building.
"If you are an adjacent building operator and you are made aware of the risk presented, the risk of potential collapse, you shut your business down," the attorney said. "You don't allow patrons like Mary Simpson and the others to be in that place and subject them to that risk. That's what this case is about."
The suit includes copies of letters and email exchanges between The Salvation Army and STB Investments staff and attorneys.
"The building at 2138 Market Street is in a state of partial demolition, the city has granted a demolition permit and the longer it remains undemolished the greater the risks to the public and all property owners of an uncontrolled collapse of part or loose debris," read a letter from STB's attorney to The Salvation Army dated May 15, 2013.
The filing alleges The Salvation Army failed to respond to the letter and waited six days to respond to a follow up email message only stating they've yet to receive answers to several questions posed to Marinakos.
Demotion then began at 2136 Market Street without any of the issues being resolved, according to the suit.
Eric Weiss, the attorney representing The Salvation Army in the case, says he has yet to see the lawsuit, but maintains the organization did nothing wrong.
"The Salvation Army was never aware or made aware of a danger of collapse," Weiss said.
Simpson, an avid figure skater, was a Bryn Mawr, Pa. native and 2007 graduate of Haverford High School. Simpson’s former high school principal Jeff Nesbitt told NBC10 in June faculty remembered her as “energetic” and “happy.”
Roberts, 43, is jailed in connection with the collapse. Officials contend Roberts was high on marijuana and prescription pain killers when he used an excavator to demolish the internal structure at 2136 Market Street. An outer, unbraced wall then toppled over onto the one-story thrift shop next door.
Witnesses who called 911 moments after the collapse said the scene was reminiscent of the terrorist attacks of September 11 and “unbelievable.”
“Oh I can’t stand this,” one caller said to a fire department dispatcher in call transcripts obtained by NBC10.com. “Let them be alright. Please. Oh, let them be alright.”
While Simpson’s suit is the first wrongful death filing, there are several civil lawsuits and an ongoing criminal case currently in progress related to the collapse.
Among the civil suits is one filed by Mariya Plekan. The 52-year-old was buried in the building's rubble for 13 hours and had to have both her legs amputated.
Wigrizer previously sued Basciano over the 1997 death of a Philadelphia judge killed when part of a garage collapsed.
NBC10's Matt DeLucia contributed to this report.