The Center City collapse trial: Blame, fault, responsibility

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Kadie Conteh (left), Aiah Boya (center) tied yellow ribbons on the shovels used for a memorial at the Salvation Army site for victims of the building collapse. The trial is on hiatus until Nov. 15.

For 51/2 weeks, lawyers have worked to persuade a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury to pin the blame on someone or something for causing the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed six and injured 13.

When they finally begin deliberating, jurors may have a hard time narrowing the list of candidates.

What's clear from the trial so far is that the multistory brick wall that fell the morning of June 5, 2013 and crushed a Salvation Army thrift store was not the product of one negligent excavator operator.

It resulted from weeks of decisions and indecision by the two major players: the Salvation Army and STB Investments Corp., owned by New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano.

"Do you remember that old movie where two guys are driving cars at high speed toward each other in a game of chicken?" mused plaintiffs' lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi as he questioned a witness.

Much of the testimony so far has detailed a backstory of bad blood that plaintiffs say explains the charity's and STB's inability to cooperate to safely demolish STB's vacant four-story building next to the one-story store.

It began earlier in 2012 when Basciano approached Salvation Army officials with a proposal: Swap the thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets for one of his buildings in the 2300 block of Market.

Basciano, who owned several properties in the 2100 block, wanted to raze the block for what he called his "dream": a two-tower residential-commercial complex.

The talks didn't end well.

The Salvation Army did not like STB's building. More important, according to testimony by charity officers, was their store's proximity to affluent Rittenhouse Square. That made the store a source of "high-quality donations" that they spread around to enhance the merchandise at their other thrift stores.

Basciano, in depositions and at trial, sounded insulted by what he called the charity's rejection of a "very fair deal."

Basciano's property manager, Thomas Simmonds, would later refer to the Salvation Army as "that half-baked charity."

As for the Salvation Army, Lt. Col. Timothy Raines, second-in-command at its West Nyack, N.Y. headquarters, told subordinates that STB's "people are not serious and have no credibility. They wouldn't know the truth if it slapped them in the face."

So it's not surprising that when Simmonds emailed Salvation Army officials on May 9, 2013, advising about the demolition of STB's Hoagie City building and the danger it posed to the thrift store, Raines was skeptical.

The following day, Simmonds and associates from STB had a conference call with Raines and Salvation Army officials.

There were two sticking points. Demolition workers needed access to the thrift store roof to take down Hoagie City's much-higher wall. And, at some point in the past, the thrift store's chimney had been extended to the top of Hoagie City and anchored to the taller building's wall.

According to trial testimony, both sides agreed to have their lawyers draft an agreement to let demolition proceed and protect each other's interests.

Raines and Salvation Army officers, however, said they heard something else: a promise to halt work until an agreement.

No one from STB's side said they made that promise and there was no mention of a demolition moratorium in an "action plan" summarizing the conference call and circulated among the parties.

Salvation Army officials never monitored the demolition site or told store workers of STB's danger warnings.

The two sides traded chilly emails for weeks but as they did, demolition continued at 2136-38 Market - until 10:41 a.m. on June 5, 2013.

The 12 jurors and five alternates seemed relieved Wednesday when they were excused until Nov. 15, a hiatus necessitated by a vacation Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said she planned before July, when she was assigned to preside over the trial.

Twenty-seven days of testimony is already more than most jurors see and this trial is predicted to run into January.

The jurors haven't seen the half of it.

Veteran court watchers say they have never heard of a trial with so many sidebars: meetings on legal questions involving judge and lawyers outside the jury's hearing.

Trial days have been punctuated by them, the briefest lasting about 10 minutes with many running 20 to 30 minutes.

True, this is a trial like none other in recent Philadelphia history. It consolidates lawsuits filed by 19 collapse victims. Those sued include the Salvation Army, STB and Basciano, two architects, two construction workers and a passel of business entities.

Every time there is an objection and sidebar request, about 20 lawyers troop up to the side of the bench in City Hall's Courtroom 653 where they huddle with Sarmina, her law clerk and a stenographer.

On Thursday morning, the jurors woke up free to resume their lives at home and work.

Sort of.

Despite the hiatus, they will go back to the box, earning $25 a day and resuming their trial note taking where the plaintiffs left off last Wednesday.

Sarmina warned jurors not to give in to curiosity and temptation: news, family and friends who want to know "How's the trial going?" or even individually trying to assess the evidence they've heard.

Sarmina said that jurors who violate their oath could cause a mistrial, an expensive prospect in a trial this big.

"There would be very serious consequences for you as well," the judge added.

When testimony resumes, the plaintiffs are expected to complete their case by the end of that week. The defense then begins its case which, with breaks at Thanksgiving and Christmas, is predicted to run into January.

The jury would then deliberate on which - if any - of the defendants are liable for money damages to those killed and injured. Assessing damages would require a subsequent "mini trial."

How long could it last?

According to newspaper archives, the longest Philadelphia civil trial ran five months.

That jury began hearing testimony in a suit involving lead poisoning of a Frankford lead smelting plant worker on Nov. 18, 1985, and finished April 11, 1986.

The jury never got to render its verdict: The case settled.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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