Salvation Army store manager says boss told her not to worry about collapse danger

Workers remove the remnants of the Salvation Army store at 22nd and Market Streets after a neighboring four-story building collapsed, killing six people and injuring 13 in 2013.

Among the survivors of the deadly 2013 Center City building collapse, Salvation Army thrift store manager Margarita Agosto is unique.

Like other survivors, she is suing for physical and emotional injuries sustained when an unbraced three- to four-story wall on a demolition site toppled and crushed the store at 22nd and Market Streets.

Unlike other survivors, Agosto is being blamed by her former employer for not recognizing the danger of a collapse, and thus not closing the store and saving lives.

Testifying Thursday in the Philadelphia civil trial of lawsuits filed on behalf of the six killed and 13 injured (one of whom died later) on June 5, 2013, Agosto told a Common Pleas Court jury that she was afraid of a collapse but was assured by her boss that "it's OK, don't worry about it."

Agosto, 40, described a store visit on June 4, 2013 - one day before the remains of the vacant Hoagie City building fell and destroyed the thrift store - by her supervisor, Ralph Pomponi.

Agosto said that as she spoke to Pomponi, there was a loud noise from the demolition site and the rattle of debris hitting the store's roof.

Agosto testified that she covered her head with her arms and told Pomponi, "Oh, my God, it's going to fall."

"He told me, 'It's OK, don't worry about it,' " Agosto testified.

Agosto's account was rejected by Pomponi, who testified later that neither Agosto nor any other employee in the store told him they worried about the demolition project.

"If they thought their lives were in danger, they had the authority to get everybody out of that store," Pomponi told the jury. "No employee ever - ever - said they were in fear of anything."

In questioning Agosto, John J. Snyder, an attorney for the Salvation Army, asked why she didn't contact Pomponi's superior when he seemed unconcerned.

"I thought he had my best interests at heart," Agosto replied. "My team, I thought he had their best interest at heart, and our customers. . . . He was my boss."

Agosto said she knew nothing about construction or demolition and ignored the work next door. She said Pomponi never asked to monitor the demolition or told her about warnings of the danger of an imminent collapse, which was the subject of an email exchange between Salvation Army officers and the owners of the building being razed.

Snyder pressed the question, asking if it wasn't "common sense" for a store manager to recognize the potential danger and act on it.

Agosto's voice broke, and she fought to maintain her composure: "I believed everything he [Pomponi] told me. You don't understand."

Other Salvation Army employees have described a rigid chain of command in which workers communicated only with their immediate superiors and were discouraged from breaching protocol.

Pomponi, 60, who supervises about 10 Salvation Army stores in the region, said his boss, Maj. John Cranford, never told him about the emails exchanged between charity officers and STB Investments Corp., which owned the demolition site.

Pomponi also insisted he never looked at the gutted remains of the Hoagie City building and two debris-strewn lots on the morning of his visit.

That claim was seized on by Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a plaintiffs' lawyer, who projected a photo of the demolition site that included a large yellow excavator poised near the remains of Hoagie City.

If you had seen the rubble and the remains of the building, Mongeluzzi asked, would you have told Cranford that demolition was ongoing?

Pomponi looked at the photo projected on a large courtroom screen and replied: "If it's being demolished? I don't really know."

The Salvation Army is being sued for purportedly ignoring the growing danger at the demolition site next door and failing to warn store employees and customers.

Also being sued are New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp., which owned the Hoagie City property; Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., STB's agent overseeing demolition; and the demolition contractor and excavator operator.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

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