Last week’s building collapse on Market Street sent a four-story brick wall through the roof of the neighboring Salvation Army, killing six and bringing scrutiny to city oversight of the demolition industry. Since then, the Department of Licenses & Inspections has been the subject of particularly heavy criticism for failing to investigate contractor Griffin Campbell’s qualifications or to adequately inspect the work site.
In fact, it’s not within L&I’s practices to do so. City Council and Mayor Nutter have pledged to review regulation and oversight of demolitions. But given the existing processes — which include rubber-stamping permits without requiring a safety plan or checking the qualifications of the demolition workers or architect “expeditors” — it’s amazing something like this didn’t happen sooner. Only, it did.
Last December, the walls of a fire-damaged, three-story bar, Elena’s Soul Lounge on Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, collapsed during demolition, showering debris onto neighboring businesses. As in last week’s collapse, witnesses said the danger was evident — and that workers didn’t seem to know what they were doing. “Everything I watched and witnessed didn’t look right,” said one bystander.
So was this a case of the city snoozing through what could’ve been a lifesaving wake-up call?
“These are totally different cases,” says L&I spokesperson Maura Kennedy. “The Market Street case was where the building was in reasonable repair and had no structural issues, and the owners chose to proactively demolish the structure.” At Elena’s, “The building became so unstable and imminently dangerous that the building had to come down immediately.” L&I contends the damage there merely reflects the inherent risk of tearing down a fire-damaged building in a rowhouse city. Unlike the Salvation Army, the businesses adjacent to Elena’s had been vacated by order of L&I.
But demolition workers and witnesses cite the same type of incompetence that was apparent at the Salvation Army. “I don’t think they knew what they was doing,” said one worker cleaning debris for Gama Wrecking, which was hired to finish the job.
First, bricks rained down on Cedar Park Cafe, next to Elena’s, when an excavator was used to knock the roof loose from below, destabilizing the wall, according to Elena’s owner Algernong Allen. The excavator had previously gutted the front interior of the building, witnesses say, leaving the roof and side walls intact. The machine operator grew “visibly frustrated as the steel beams he was using bent, one after the other,” Allen wrote in an email. “Then, he began to use the claw to hit the roof joists from beneath. Some loosed. With one upward swing the roof was detached, but bricks were toppled into the [cafe].”
Later, the side walls crumbled. A bystander’s video shows an excavator holding a long rod — apparently a beam picked out of the debris — which it repeatedly knocks against the wall. The top of the wall falls inward; the rest tumbles onto the roof of Gary’s Nails.
L&I contends a hand demolition would have been impossible. But a demolition professional familiar with the job says it could have been accomplished with a high-reach cherry picker. “They pushed those two walls on top of those two-story buildings, which they should have never done. You bring in a high-reach and you do the rest by hand. How about that? … You start from the roof and work your way down.”
There was a major difference between the work on Market Street and the Elena’s job, though: At Elena’s, the contractors were hired directly by L&I.
L&I says it first hired JPC Group Inc. for the job. JPC declined to comment, but in January said it was not involved. JPC and Gama, which was hired to complete the demolition, are both on a “bid list” of firms hired to demolish buildings for the city.
L&I did not take responsibility for destroying the two businesses. Instead, they cited them, giving them 30 days to repair or demolish their buildings — the same buildings the L&I-contracted crew had destroyed. It is unclear whether the crew followed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. OSHA requires that “no wall section, which is more than one story in height, shall be permitted to stand alone without lateral bracing” unless it is self-supporting. L&I contends the walls could not have safely been laterally braced. “That wall was in imminent danger of collapse,” says Kennedy. “You can’t put someone underneath a wall that may crumble.”
But Allen says workers placed tires on the roofs of the adjoining businesses — under those same walls. The tires, the demolition professional says, protect from light debris. “If you lose the whole fucking wall, all the tires in the world ain’t stopping the weight.”
Perhaps most significantly, L&I did not require an engineering survey of the building and adjacent structures before demolition, as required by OSHA. Kennedy says there was no time for such a survey. OSHA, however, says that’s no excuse. “There are no exceptions,” says OSHA spokesperson Leni Uddyback-Fortson.
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