Philadelphia officials look for cause of collapse that killed 6

A worker passes the scene of a building collapse during a temporary halt to search-and-rescue operations early Thursday in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke

PHILADELPHIA — The search for victims of a building collapse that killed six people wound down Thursday amid mounting questions about whether the demolition company that was tearing down the structure at the time caused the tragedy by cutting corners.

City and federal investigators worked to pinpoint the cause of Wednesday’s disaster, in which the four-story building along Philadelphia’s busy Market Street collapsed onto a Salvation Army thrift shop next door with a loud boom and a huge cloud of dust, trapping store employees and others under bricks.

“Buildings get demolished all the time in the city of Philadelphia with active buildings right next to them. ... They’re done safely in this city all the time,” Mayor Michael Nutter said. “Something obviously went wrong here yesterday and possibly in the days leading up to it. That’s what the investigation is for.”

As details of the demolition contractor’s checkered legal and financial past came to light, a city councilman charged that dangerous, under-the-radar tear-downs are taking place throughout the city and demanded a stricter application and inspection process.

More than 24 hours after the collapse, the search for the dead and injured was nearly complete, with no one else believed to be in the rubble.

Rescue efforts were buoyed early Thursday when a 61-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble alive and conscious 13 hours after the building fell. Nyra Plekam was hospitalized in critical condition and was said to be floating in and out of consciousness. At least 12 others were hurt, many with minor injuries. Five remained hospitalized. “That’s why we stay the course,” said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. “This person being pulled out alive is what this rescue operation is all about.”

Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were at the scene.

The mayor said he was not aware of any complaints about the demolition work done by Griffin Campbell Construction in the days before the tragedy. But OSHA said it had gotten a complaint May 15 that workers at the site were at risk of falling. The complaint was still open at the time of the disaster, U.S. Labor Department spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson said.

OSHA regulates the demolition industry and enforces standards meant to ensure worker safety. Among other things, its regulations forbid any wall section exceeding one story to stand alone without bracing, unless the wall was designed that way. Witnesses have said they saw a 30-foot section of unbraced wall before the collapse.

Also, a video of the demolition taken Sunday and posted on YouTube showed bricks raining down on the sidewalk as a worker used a backhoe and claw to remove a second-story front wall, with two other workers on the scene.