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Contractors get prison time for deadly building collapse

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  • Rescue personnel worked the scene of a building collapse on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia in June 2013 that left six people dead. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

PHILADELPHIA » As he drank coffee at his job site in the mornings, demolition subcontractor Sean Benschop often talked with Borbor Davis, who worked at the adjacent Salvation Army in downtown Philadelphia.

The men, both immigrants, asked where the other was from.

“I say, ‘I’m from Guyana.’ He say, ‘I’m from Liberia,’” Benschop testified today before he was sentenced for his role in a 2013 building collapse that killed the 68-year-old Davis and five others. “When I learned … he was dead, I couldn’t believe it.”

Benschop, who was operating heavy machinery the day of the collapse despite taking Percocet and marijuana for medical problems, was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison.

Co-defendant Griffin Campbell was the cut-rate contractor who gutted the building from the inside, destabilizing it, rather than take it down floor by floor. He was sentenced to 15 to 30 years.

Judge Glenn Bronson deemed Campbell a danger to the community, ignoring warnings the building was at risk of imminent collapse. And he said the collapse “shook this city to its core.”

The men were convicted of similar crimes, including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and causing a catastrophe, although a jury last year acquitted Campbell of third-degree murder. Benschop pleaded guilty and testified against Campbell.

Prosecutors said Campbell ignored standard demolition practices in order to salvage joists and other materials. The joints were resold for $6 apiece.

Campbell, 51, denied any profit motive, and said he had a long history of generosity in his North Philadelphia neighborhood.

He said he had been thrilled to get the $112,000 contract and hoped it would be his big break after years running a lunch truck.

“This job meant a lot to me — a lot. I was going to be out of debt, and life was going to be good,” said Campbell, 51, a married father of four.

City Treasurer Nancy Winkler called it “disturbing and distressing” that her family will have to go through a second trial in civil court to seek justice for others involved in the building demolition that killed her 24-year-old daughter, Anne Bryan.

Many families are suing building owner Richard Basciano, who was redeveloping the long-vacant strip of stores after owning them for about 20 years, along with the Salvation Army and other entities.

A city inspector who had visited the site committed suicide days later, although officials found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

The four others killed were Kimberly Finnegan, 34, a newly engaged woman working her first day at the thrift store; Bryan’s close friend, Mary Simpson; Juanita Harmin, 75, a retired University of Pennsylvania secretary; and Roseline Conteh, 52, a mother of nine looking for bargains to send to her native Sierra Leone.

“They suffered a terrible death, buried alive, suffocating,” the judge said.

Myra Plekan, a widow from the Ukraine shopping at the thrift store’s weekly sale, lost both legs after spending 13 hours trapped in the rubble. She was not in court today as she recuperates from her 31st surgery. Her medical bills have topped $10 million, her lawyer said.

“The doctors tell me I will live to a normal age, but my life will be anything but normal,” Plekan, who now lives in a nursing home, wrote in a letter to the judge. “I do look forward to when all people responsible for what happened when the Salvation Army store collapsed will be brought to justice.”

Davis died in the store basement after switching posts with a younger clerk called away to hang a picture, the surviving co-worker testified last year, fighting back tears.

Benschop, 44, asked the judge today if he could write to the victim’s families. The judge found his remorse sincere.

“Mr. Benschop advised others of the proper way to do things,” defense lawyer William Davis said. “Then, faced with a decision to keep working to provide for his family or to walk away … he made a mistake.”

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