I'D BEEN CHASING this ghost for more than three years. And then finally, last week, there he was in a Philadelphia courtroom.
Richard Basciano all but vanished after his crumbling Market Street building flattened a neighboring Salvation Army thrift store in 2013, killing six people and injuring 13.
But then last Wednesday, he appeared in a sixth-floor City Hall courtroom, where he and others are facing a civil suit filed by survivors and the relatives of those killed.
With more consideration than anyone involved in this tragedy ever gave the innocent people who walked into the Salvation Army store at 22nd and Market Streets that fateful June day, a humorless assistant protectively tended to Basciano and led him to the stand to finally answer for his deeds.
Even before Basciano stepped into the courtroom, accommodations were made.
At the request of his lawyer, it was agreed that Basciano would testify for no more than three hours a day. He might also have to leave the stand abruptly to use the bathroom. When Basciano had a tearful outburst on the stand on Thursday and said he couldn't go on, there was no discussion by the court of maybe asking Basciano to take a breather, or a sip of water from any number of people primed to offer him one. He was dismissed for the day and didn't take the stand again until Monday.
I'm not usually so dismissive of my elders. At 91, Basciano is an old man. He has bad knees and worse hearing. He had to use earphones so he could hear questions during his testimony. He uses a cane. Sometimes his hands shake.
But I have a hard time feeling much empathy for anyone who doesn't own the blood on his hands. In this preventable tragedy, that includes the Salvation Army, whose "Soldiers of Jesus Christ" - as one of its majors called its representatives - seemed more loyal to a chain of command than to the safety of their employees and customers.
Plus, Basciano's age clearly hasn't affected the former boxer's survival instincts.
On the stand, he was at once a self-made man who built a real estate empire and a guy with an eighth-grade education who left details up to more sophisticated employees, including Plato Marinakos, the architect he hired to oversee the project and who got immunity for his testimony.
It took Basciano longer to walk to the stand than it did to distance himself from culpability.
On Wednesday, when one attorney suggested that Basciano and his wife had fled the deadly scene, Basciano, who until then had been subdued and sometimes hard to understand, roared with indignation:
"That's a lie! That is a damn lie! I'm going through hell and you distort me and you know where I'm coming from."
The next day, when another attorney suggested that the victims and families were the ones going through hell, Basciano's frailty again faded.
"That's exactly why I'm going through hell," Basciano yelled. "With the poor people who died - I'm brokenhearted about it. I'm brokenhearted about it."
His sobs would have been a lot more convincing if he hadn't made a career of choosing cost over quality.
If the people who were truly going through hell weren't sitting just steps from him during much of his "I can't recall" testimony.
Hell is burying your child. Ask the parents of 24-year-old Anne Bryan.
Hell is having to reimagine your future without the most important person in your life. Ask Borbor Davis' widow and his daughter.
Hell is being buried alive under debris for 13 hours and then having to adjust to life with half a body after you lose your legs. Ask Mariya Plekan, who was sitting right behind Basciano in an electric wheelchair on one of the days he exploded on the stand.
Hell, Mr. Basciano, is watching a man who for years used his money and contacts to insulate himself from a reality that others can't escape.
For the last three years, I repeatedly asked one question while chasing this ghost.
"Where's Basciano?" I asked when I showed up at his swank Symphony House high-rise shortly after the collapse to talk to him about his role in the tragedy
"Where's Basciano?" I asked when families gathered at the site of the collapse, which soon will be a memorial garden.
"Where's Basciano?" I asked when only two people, the inexperienced demolition contractor Griffin Campbell and the excavator Sean Benschop - who operated an excavator on site when the unsupported three- to four-story brick wall toppled and flattened the one-story thrift shop - were criminally charged.
As I watched Basciano walk off the stand Monday after testifying for a handful of coddled hours over three days - scheduled to return again next month - I realized it really never mattered.
What matters is that unlike all the victims, he was here, alive. Able to live, love, and grow old.
What matters is that, once again, he was able to walk and talk his way past all the destruction he helped to cause, only to disappear again.