Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, right, speaks as Rich Negrin, center, Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia, and Carlton Williams with Streets Department listen during a press conference in Philadelphia city hall Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, Alejandro A. Alvarez)
by Maryclaire Dale
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A veteran Philadelphia building inspector who apparently committed suicide had inspected the site of a deadly building collapse twice in February and an adjacent, related project in mid-May.
The June 5 collapse killed six people when a four-story building tumbled onto a small thrift shop. The demolition site consisted of three attached buildings.
City records show that Ronald Wagenhoffer inspected the site before work began on Feb. 12 and again on Feb. 25, after it got underway. He returned to the strip of attached storefronts on May 14 after a citizen complained about the demolition being conducted at the building next door to the one that collapsed. Wagenhoffer found the complaint unfounded.
Mayor Michael Nutter called the death Wednesday of 52-year-old Wagenhoffer “astounding” and “painful.”
“We had six people who died in the building collapse and now we’ve had another person perish because of this particular tragedy,” Nutter said in Chicago, where he was attending a conference Thursday. “This was just astounding to find this out.”
A demolition subcontractor, 42-year-old Sean Benschop, has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly being “impaired” by marijuana and painkillers while operating an excavator just before the crash. He also had his right hand in a cast, but his lawyer has said he was fit to work that day. The collapse was an accident and Benschop was not responsible for it, his lawyer has said.
The strip of buildings being demolished at the edge of downtown were owned by New York developer Richard Basciano, once dubbed the porn king of Times Square. Bosciano was believed to be at the site that morning, talking to demolition contractor Griffin Campbell, when an unsupported four-story brick wall crashed onto the thrift store. The demolition was being done for $122,000, according to Campbell’s lawyer, although the permit listed the job cost as $10,000.
Wagenhoffer was not the person who approved the demolition permit.
Basciano’s lawyer, Thomas Sprague, declined comment Thursday on his client’s reaction to the inspector’s death or to any of the investigations underway. They include probes by the city, the District Attorney’s Office and a plaintiff’s lawyer representing several survivors.
Campbell’s lawyer, Kenneth Edelin, has said that Benschop was not authorized to use heavy equipment to knock down the wall, but only to remove debris. Benschop’s lawyer, Daine Grey, said his client was following orders “100 percent.”
Wagenhoffer had started working for the city as a carpenter in 1997 and worked his way up to his post as an inspector, earning just over $60,000, according to city records. He had been nominated for a top safety award in the city’s Licenses and Inspections department in 2011.
Nutter said he had talked to Wagenhoffer’s wife, Michele, on Thursday morning to offer support. The couple married 10 years ago and have a young son, according to Wagenhoffer’s Facebook page, which shows him atop a skyscraper a few blocks from the collapse site earlier this year.
“Another day working in the best city in the world,” he wrote in an early March post.
Wagenhoffer had continued to work after the building collapse June 5, and finished his last shift Wednesday, just hours before his death. Police found his body in his vehicle at about 9 p.m., about a mile from his handsome $560,000 home. He died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot to the chest, authorities said.