It was a horrific scene, a calamity of such proportion that the ramifications will be felt for years to come. Smoke, rubble, dust and death found its way to Center City Philadelphia, killing six and injuring numerous more.
When a factory building collapsed in Bangladesh nearly two months ago, resulting in the loss of more than 1,100 lives — mostly textile workers making garments for American companies, including Walmart and Benetton — most Americans were shocked at the callous disregard factory owners seemed to show for their workers. The low-wage textile workers were told to come to work or forfeit their jobs, even though owners were warned of the danger of imminent collapse.
I will admit that at the time, reading the accounts of the tragedy, I silently scoffed at the way business is conducted in third world countries — robber barons squeezing workers for more output on lower pay, with no regard for safety or health hazards. Poor people who have no choice in the matter and few options are forced to bend to the will of the moneyed and powerful, who ignore regulations and common decency in the name of the almighty dollar.
I’m not scoffing now. Because right now, there doesn’t appear to be that much difference between a dingy factory halfway around the world and a construction site at 22nd and Market.
We have health and safety regulations in this country, and in this city. We have OSHA, L&I and any number of regulatory agencies whose sole purpose is to root out jobsite negligence and punish the violators.
But we also have fat cats and big money interests who spend considerable time and effort looking for ways to circumvent those regulations in the name of cutting costs. Those fat cats generally win their arguments here, just like they do in Bangladesh.
Now, I have no experience whatsoever in the proper way to demolish a property, especially one that stands next to properties currently in use. But since Wednesday’s collapse, everyone from amateurs to experts have weighed in, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, declared that the methods used by Griffin Campbell Construction to demolish the buildings at 2136 and 2138 Market Street were all wrong.
I’m not dismissing those opinions, because I’m sure quite a few are spot on. But it seems, according to city officials, that Campbell had all the required permits, and was authorized to do the work. The city’s department of Licenses and Inspections spent Wednesday and Thursday in the spotlight, answering a barrage of questions about how often the demolition work was inspected and by whom.
Mayor Michael Nutter has promised a thorough and impartial investigation, and you can bet that city leadership, regulatory agencies and the construction company will spend the next few months under a microscope, and will be asked uncomfortable questions about who knew what and when.
Already news reports are flying fast and furious about Griffin Campbell, the construction company owner, and his criminal record, which may or may not have anything at all to do with the tragedy. Also in for a rough couple of months is building owner Richard Basciano, a New Yorker once known as the pornography king of Times Square. Similarly, Basciano’s porn business may be completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, but now everything is on the table, and every little tidbit of information will be held up for public scrutiny.
I don’t know if Campbell, Basciano, their agents or employees could have prevented the collapse. I don’t know if they used poor judgment or showed a callous disregard for the health and safety of the people in the adjacent buildings.
I am sure that over the coming months, we’re going to learn every detail about who did what, and I am equally sure that in the end, this is going to cost someone an awful lot of money.
Our hearts go out to the families of the dead, and we will include the injured in our prayers. But this horror should also serve as a reminder that as a society, we must remain vigilant in our effort to keep workplaces, workers, and innocent bystanders shopping at a thrift store, safe from unnecessary harm.
The next time some right winger bleats about too much government intrusion, and how regulatory rules are ruining American business, and how we’d all be better off if the fat cats were allowed to do whatever they want without regard to trivial things like safety — take a look at the pile of rubble at 22nd and Market, where six people likely died for someone else’s pile of money.
Daryl Gale is the city editor for The Philadelphia Tribune.