Richard Basciano, principal in deadly Center City building collapse, dies at 91

Richard Basciano going to court on Oct. 20, 2016, in the civil trial resulting from the collapse of his building that destroyed the Salvation Army thrift store in Center City in 2013 that resulted in 7 deaths and 12 injuries. Mr. Basciano died Monday night at age 91.

Richard Basciano, 91, whose late-in-life attempt to transform his reputation as a "Porn King" to the man who remade Market Street West ended in a deadly 2013 building collapse, died Monday night in New York City, his lawyer, Thomas A. Sprague, confirmed Tuesday. 

Mr. Basciano, who had been in failing health for at least a year, was the lead defendant in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court civil suit resulting from the seven deaths and 12 injuries in the June 5, 2013, collapse that destroyed a Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

The jury found Mr. Basciano and the Salvation Army, among others, liable for monetary damages to the victims on Jan. 31. The case ended Feb. 8, as the jury was hearing evidence to award damages, with the announcement of a $227 million settlement funded by Mr. Basciano and the Salvation Army.

"Mr. Basciano had a big heart," said Sprague, "and I think that his concern about the accident and those killed and seriously injured weighed upon him very much and no doubt took a toll on his health."

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the collapse litigation, declined to comment.

Though Mr. Basciano lived mostly in Manhattan, in an apartment above the Times Square building that once housed Show World, his legendary “sex emporium,” he also bought an apartment in Symphony House in 2009 to monitor his Philadelphia properties.

Mr. Basciano lived an epic life as a bricklayer, amateur boxer, and World War II combat veteran who built a modest business speculating in rundown urban real estate into a multimillion-dollar empire after he took over the Times Square pornography trade.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Basciano’s network of adult theaters and bookstores expanded into Philadelphia, where he bought the Forum, the city's oldest adult theater, as well as a strip of abandoned and rundown businesses on Market between 21st and 23rd Streets.

For years, Mr. Basciano was the target of urban planners and city officials, who called his strip of Market Street properties an eyesore and a roadblock to the burgeoning growth of Center City as a residential and business hub.

Then, in 2012, Mr. Basciano announced plans to raze his properties and replace them with a twin-tower complex mixing residential and commercial space. He called the project the “Gateway” to Center City and said it was his dream.

But the dream soured as 2012 became 2013 and Salvation Army officials rejected his overtures to buy their thrift store at 22nd and Market. Mr. Basciano decided to proceed without the thrift store property and in early 2013 began demolition.

By June 5, demolition was down to the remains of the Hoagie City building, a three- to four-story unbraced brick wall that loomed above the one-story thrift store. At 10:41 a.m., as an excavator picked at the remains of another portion of the building, the wall toppled and crushed the thrift store. Six people were killed and 13 injured, and one of the injured died 23 days later.

Mr. Basciano, who was at the site when the wall fell, contacted his lawyers and secluded himself as officials launched investigations and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams empaneled a grand jury.

After two years, only two people were criminally charged: demolition contractor Griffin Campbell and excavator operator Sean Benschop. Both were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and in January 2016 sentenced to long prison terms.

Mr. Basciano did not testify, availing himself of his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. The architect whom Mr. Basciano chose to monitor the demolition, Plato A. Marinakos Jr., testified for the prosecution under a grant of immunity.

The fact that only two blue-collar African American men were criminally prosecuted while the white Basciano, Marinakos, and others were not drew public criticism and stoked interest in the trial of the civil lawsuits resulting from the collapse.

The trial began last Sept. 19 in Courtroom 653 in City Hall, and Mr. Basciano was called to the witness stand by the plaintiffs’ lawyers on Oct. 19 during the trial’s fifth week.

Helped to the witness stand by an aide, and wearing stereo headphones so he could hear, Mr. Basciano verbally sparred with plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven G. Wigrizer the first day, calling him a “liar” after Wigrizer asserted that Mr. Basciano had fled the scene of the collapse.

The next day, Mr. Basciano broke down in sobs when Mongeluzzi asked him about the families of those killed and injured.

“That’s exactly why I’m going through hell,” Mr. Basciano replied, his voice rising. “With the poor people who died – I’m broken-hearted about it.”

Finally, Mr. Basciano said, “I came here long enough, I came here long enough,” and removed the headphones and moved to leave the witness stand.

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed Mr. Basciano to cut short his testimony. He returned for one more uneventful hour a few days later.

Mr. Basciano is survived by his second wife, Lois, and three adult daughters by his late first wife.

Sprague said the funeral would be Saturday in Mr. Basciano's hometown of Baltimore, but the time and other details were not immediately available.