Building collapse: Working in pain, working through pain

Roofer Anthony Soli, 42, hasn't been sleeping well.

He keeps replaying Wednesday's memories, the loud crash, the horrifying sight of a building under demolition collapsing onto the Salvation Army Thrift Store, the mad scramble down the scaffolding, the rush into the rubble to find someone to save, the voices calling, `help me, help me, help me.' Then, hours later, hearing the news that six people had died.

On Wednesday, Soli and fellow members of Local 30 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, were working on the roof of the College of Physicians building, just across the alley from the building collapse at 22d and Market Streets in Philadelphia. They were among the first on the scene.

"It humbled me," said Soli, of West Deptford Township. "It just opened my eyes to how precious life is."

On Sunday, they returned to work on the roof, taking a few minutes at the start of the shift to stand and look at the rubble below and to talk about their feelings. "You realize that the Grim Reaper is close," he said. In this case, 30 feet away.

Soli has avidly been following the investigation into the demolition debacle. In the weeks leading up to the collapse, he and his fellow roofers commented to each other how shoddy the work appeared.

Soli definitely does not want to be in the position of defending excavation operator Sean Benschop, also 42, of Philadelphia's Logan neighborhood. Benschop was charged criminally in the death of the six after blood tests showed that he had marijuana in his system. A police source said that he told investigators that he had taken pain killers for an arm injury. He was wearing an arm cast to work on Wednesday.

But, Soli said, "it is way bigger than that Snoop Dog looking guy. Yeah, he fits a profile and people will say he deserves the electric chair, but he was probably making $14 or $15 under the table, trying to feed his family." Soli said that the demolition contractor and the building owner should be sharing a much larger piece of the blame, considering that they didn't seem to be insisting on, or paying for, safe demolition procedures.

And, he said, he understands being in pain. "Most construction workers are in pain," he said. The job punishes the body, taking its toll on muscles and joints, exacting payment in torn ligaments and messed-up rotator cuffs. Some construction workers rely on prescription pain medicine to get through the day. Inevitably, some become addicted. "They need it to get out of bed," he said. "It's an epidemic."

That's what happened to him. "I've been clean for over four years," he said. The psychological struggle that ensues isn't just about ending the addiction. It's about finding redemption, from loved ones, for oneself. 

Maybe, Soli thinks now, maybe he found a little redemption on Wednesday, when he rushed into the rubble, looking for life amid the destruction. But that wasn't on his mind then -- all he thought about were the people inside the store, and the voices calling for help.

These days, Soli is concentrating on his family -- his wife and three children, a son, 21, who is a union carpenter, and two daughters, 14 and 10. He realizes the importance of kissing his wife and children before he leaves for work. "Life is precious."