The tragedy brought about by a building collapse in Philadelphia on June 6, 2013, where six people were killed, deepened on Thursday, June 13, as a long-time building inspector, who had been the site three times, as recently as May, took his own life. Police found 52 year-old Ronald Wagenhoffer dead in his car Thursday evening, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
An official investigation of the cause of the building collapse had cleared Wagenhoffer, finding that the crane operator on the project was high on marijuana at the time of the accident. Several lawsuits have been filed by families of victims of the collapse, alleging unsafe practices by the general contractor on the demolition.
According to city records, Wagenhoffer last visited the site on May 14, in response to complaints from neighbors about the proximity of the demolition. Wagenhoffer’s inspection that day found no violations. Nonetheless, city officials have faced scrutiny of inspection practices and policies.
Mayor Everett Gillison was quick to defend Wagenhoffer. “The department did what it was supposed to do under the code as it existed at the time…this man did nothing wrong. He did his job and did it the way he was supposed to be doing it.” Gillison told reporters on Friday.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has announced that a grand jury investigation will look into all the possible causes of the collapse.
Could the Collapse Have Been Prevented?
In the aftermath of such a tragedy, one of the first question on the minds of many was “could this have been avoided? If so, how?” In light of what has been reported in the media, here are some considerations:
- Was the general contractor negligent? Reports indicate that the crane operator was high on one or more substances at the time of the accident. An employer, especially in such a dangerous line of work, may have a duty to monitor employees to ensure that they come to work mentally and physically able to perform without putting others at risk. According, the general contractor may have liability for allowing the crane operator to work while impaired.
- Additional evidence suggests that the crane operator had a “long rap sheet.” Employers must also use reasonable care when hiring employees. This may be a basis for liability.
- In situations like this, where there are buildings adjacent to the demolition, the general contractor must be aware of and should take reasonable steps to strengthen foundations on abutting structures. Victims’ attorneys should carefully review all steps taken by the general contractor to shore up neighboring buildings.