For the second day in a row, the elderly owner being sued for the catastrophic 2013 Market Street building collapse became outraged while testifying at the civil trial.
At first, Richard Basciano, 91, spent much of his time on the stand Thursday replying with the mumbled phrase, “I don’t recall,” when asked about details and events leading up to the disastrous demolition project between 21st and 22nd streets.
But his demeanor shifted drastically when plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Mongeluzzi prodded Basciano about the developer’s testimony from a day earlier. On Wednesday, Basciano at one point yelled: “I’m living in hell here!”
“Do you think the victims’ families are going through hell?” asked Mongeluzzi, who is part of a team of lawyers representing those families of seven people killed and 12 others injured June 5, 2013.
“That is exactly why I’m going through hell! When poor people died, I’m broken hearted about it! I’m broken hearted about it!” Basciano yelled.
He then abruptly declared himself unable to continue testifying.
“I can’t go on, your honor,” he said, crying. “I can’t go on.”
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Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina quickly agreed to let Basciano leave the stand.
The previous day, Basciano lost control during questioning from another plaintiffs’ attorney, Steven Wigrizer. Basciano lashed out at the accusation that he witnessed first-hand the collapse of a four-story wall that crushed the Salvation Army store next door.
His demolition contractor, Griffin Campbell, previously testified that he was talking at the construction site with Basciano and Basciano’s wife, Lois, as the collapse occurred.
“That is a damned lie! A damned lie! I’m going through hell here!” he yelled at Wigrizer on Wednesday. “You know this and you’re distorting this!”
Basciano’s long-awaited testimony has been the most explosive yet in a trial that began last month. It is expected to last at least into late November.
His testimony is the first time the developer has spoken publicly about the collapse that flattened the Salvation Army store at the corner of 22nd and Market streets. The victims were crushed inside the store when an unsecured four-story wall of brick and concrete came tumbling down.
Contributing to the drawn-out courtroom drama is the sheer volume of attorneys for the 19 plaintiffs and six defendants.
The defendants are Basciano and his company STB, his project representative Plato Marinakos, Campbell, Campbell’s excavator operator Sean Benschop, and the Salvation Army.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have claimed that officials with the Salvation Army ignored signs that the demolition was “imminently dangerous” and posed obvious risks to the company’s employees and customers.
Campbell and Benschop were the only two people criminally charged and are each serving lengthy prison terms for involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
After allowing Basciano off the stand, Sarmina evacuated the courtroom, except for the many lawyers and the jury. She told the audience only that a private discussion about “scheduling” would take place.
Prior to the start of the trial, she declared a universal gag order, so no one inside the courtroom could discuss what took place.
The trial resumes Friday, but it appears likely that Basciano will not return to the stand again until Monday. Because of his frailty, Sarmina previously approved of a request from his defense attorney that the developer only spend three hours at a time on the stand.