One year ago today a large wall made of brick and masonry collapsed at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia. It was a disaster unlike the city had seen in recent memory. An event that has led to death, hurt, anger, grief, reform and healing.
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Today we look back at what took place in the first 24 hours leading up to and following the collapse. This timeline has been compiled from a year’s worth of reporting by NBC10 and NBC10.com, the findings of an investigating grand jury, law enforcement statements and eyewitness accounts.
Bright sun flooded Market Street as a light 6 mph breeze cooled the 78 degree air that Wednesday. Under blue skies, workers begin to arrive at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop and construction site next door.
Demolition work begins for the day on the former Hoagie City building at 2136 Market Streets. The 100-year-old brick building, which stood four stories tall, had already been partially demolished. However, the building’s western wall loomed freely, without bracing, over the site and Salvation Army Thrift Shop next door.
Contractor Griffin Campbell directed backhoe operator Sean Benschop to hop into his 18 ton Caterpillar excavator. Several workers at the site told a grand jury that Benschop used the machine’s metal claw to pull beams and other rubble from the building’s basement as Campbell looked on. The vibrations from the excavator’s movements traveling through the free-standing wall.
The 3 story high western wall tumbles downward toward 22nd Street. The fall’s force crushes the roof and outer walls of the one-story Salvation Army Thrift Shop below. Inside that humble yellow washed building, nearly two dozen workers and customers are buried under brick, wood, glass and metal.
Large dust plumes billow out in all directions as the entire western side of the thrift shop collapses. Passersby run and tumble into the street as they try to avoid getting struck by falling debris.
Thrift shop employee Felicia Hill was looking down an aisle at co-worker Kimberly Finnegan when their world fell apart.
"The whole entire wall had fell down and buried her, and then I ran for my life," Hill said. "I was just standing there, covering, shielding my head, trying to protect anything from falling on my head.”
Outside of the building, Bernie Ditomo, a building contractor, was waiting at a stoplight along 22nd Street when the thrift shop’s walls collapsed onto his white Ford F-150. A street light was flung across his windshield, bricks thrown into the passenger seat and parts of the wall landed on his flatbed and hood. Luckily, Ditmo was not trapped.
“It felt like an earthquake," Ditomo told NBC10.com. "I said, 'What the hell is going on?' My truck is totaled. I am a little dusty and dirty, but I’m alright. I am one of the lucky ones. I made it."
Two calls are simultaneously placed to 911. One caller likened the scene to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
“I think this building here that was under demolishing collapsed at 22nd and Market…it’s a tremendous amount of dust and I think you might have to send some…the ambulances over there…it looks like 9/11…unbelievable,” the caller told a Philadelphia Police operator.
Nearly a dozen similar calls were made over the span of a few minutes.
Construction workers from the adjacent job site as well as roofers working at the Mutter Museum next door run over and jump into the rubble to try and rescue those trapped. Roofers Bill Roam and Brian Mullins were one of the first people there to help.
“You really couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We freed up as many people as we could while waiting for the authorities to get there. Everybody chipped in. We got as many people out as we could,” Roam said.
The Philadelphia Fire Department dispatches the first crews to the scene. The closest firehouse, Engine 43 and Ladder 9, is 200 feet away. They arrive on scene within two minutes.
The first firefighters arrive at the scene. 125 firefighters and 35 pieces of equipment will eventually descend onto the scene. First responders set up a five block perimeter around the site from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Walnut Street and 18th Street to the Schuylkill River.
Meanwhile, Campbell frantically calls demolition architect Platos Marinakos pleading him to come to the site. When asked how the collapse happened, the contractor tells Marinakos he had previously lied about the wall having been demolished and said the excavator was “yanking on something” when the wall fell, according to the grand jury report.
Eight victims removed from the rubble and taken to three downtown trauma centers -- Hahnemann University Hospital, The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Hill is one of them. "Somebody from the outside grabbed me, another fireman grabbed me and pulled me out," she recalled.
Other co-workers and patrons remain trapped. Debris pin some down by their head or limbs.
A total of 12 people trapped in the collapse are removed and taken to hospitals. Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers says two others had been located, but remain trapped.
“We’ve had our technical team as well as other pieces of commercial equipment that have come in to assist us,” Ayers said at a press conference across the street from the scene. “Right now, we’re continuing in that searching operation.”
Several people remain in the rubble, but rescuers have yet to learn that.
“We have a significant number of personnel on the scene that trying to see whether or not there are any other individuals in this building,” Mayor Michael Nutter told the press. “We do not know whether there are or are not.”
Fire crews bring in large steel bracing to hold up the remaining facade of the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, which still partially stands on the corner. Inside the building, clothes still hang on racks as rescuers slowly move through the rubble.
Philadelphia Police at the scene confirm the first fatality: Kimberly Finnegan.
It was her first day on the job at the Center City thrift shop. The 35-year-old cashier had just gotten engaged two weeks before.
Fire Commissioner Ayers confirms confirms a total of 13 people had been rescued from the disaster. The department begins to cycle in new firefighters and brings in two search and rescue K9s.
“We have two dogs that have come out to work the pile to locate others so we can know exactly where to dig,” Ayers said. “We’re preparing for a 12 to 24 hour operation.”
Mayor Nutter says officials are still working to determine how many people were in the thrift shop when the collapse happened.
As the search continues, officials bring in seismic and sound equipment to add to the search and rescue effort.
“It’s a tedious operation,” said Ayers. “Our hope is that anyone that is inside is in a void that we can have a live rescue. If not, then we’ll just take this apart a little at a time."
Under gasoline powered flood lights, a small crew of rescuers continue to piece through the rubble. But the mood turns somber as officials confirm six people were killed.
Along with Finnegan, five others were killed in the collapse: Borbor Davis, Juanita Harmin, Mary Simpson, Anne Bryan and Roseline Conteh.
“Our thoughts and our prayers go out to those who lost their lives and their families and at the same time we hope that those who survived recover, not only physically, but also mentally from being in a building and then it suddenly collapses,” Nutter said.
35 minutes after confirming the deaths of six people, a K9 picks up the scent of another person trapped in the bowels of the rubble. It’s Mariya Plekan. The 61-year-old had her lower body crushed beneath a beam and heavy wall.
Plekan spent hours screaming for help from under the rubble pile, but no one came.
“It was a little crack there, a blue little crack, and through that crack the light and the air was coming in,” Plekan said during a videotaped testimony last year. “I had a hope that they would 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.”
That’s until 13 hours later, when a dog finally located her.
"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."
Firefighters carefully extract her fragile body and rush her to a nearby hospital. The damage to her lower body so severe, doctors are forced to cut off both legs at the hip. Despite numerous challenges, she has survived.
Having searched for more than 19 hours, fire crews call off the rescue mission and pull back from the scene.
In the hours, days and months following, a number of developments emerged. Six investigations were launched by numerous agencies including the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, OSHA and an independent Blue-Ribbon commission. The City of Philadelphia revised building demolition practices and protocols -- twice. A number of lawsuits have been filed against several entities including the Salvation Army and property owner STB Investments and its leader Richard Basciano.
The building inspector assigned to the demolition took his own life. Marinakos has testified against the contractors. Benschop and Campbell were implicated and charged with third degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and conspiracy. Both are fighting the charges and deny wrongdoing.