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Philly: Inspector Denied Blame in Collapse

Ronald Wagenhoffer left behind a cellphone video message before his suicide.

Wed June 19, 2013 - Northeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A building inspector who had visited a demolition site before a brick wall collapsed onto an adjacent thrift store, killing six people, left a cellphone video message before his apparent suicide saying the collapse "wasn’t my fault, the mayor’s spokesman said.

However, inspector Ronald Wagenhoffer also said he wished he’d been more diligent, spokesman Mark McDonald told The Associated Press on Friday.

Wagenhoffer inspected the downtown site before and after demolition work began in February and visited an attached, related job site on May 14 following a complaint.

A four-story brick wall collapsed at the site June 5, burying 19 people inside a one-story Salvation Army thrift shop next door. Besides the six people who died, 13 were injured.

Wagenhoffer, a veteran inspector, was found dead in his truck on Wednesday June 12th, hours after finishing his last shift. Police said they believe he shot himself in the chest.

According to McDonald, Wagenhoffer first secured his cellphone on the dashboard and made two brief videos, each 20 to 30 seconds long. The first was for his wife and young son, McDonald said, and the second described his thoughts on the collapse.

"He says that he can’t sleep," said McDonald, who said he viewed both videos Friday afternoon. "He says that he was devastated by the deaths and injuries at the scene."

McDonald said Wagenhoffer then says briefly on the videos he "wished that he’d been more diligent."

"He wished that he’d gotten out of a truck at some point in time," he said, "but it’s not connected to any particular event. There’s no mention of May 14. And he never says that he never inspected the site."

McDonald said Wagenhoffer used the words: "It wasn’t my fault."

The demolition site included three attached storefront buildings, all owned by Richard Basciano, once dubbed the pornography king of Times Square.

Records from the Department of Licenses and Inspections state that Wagenhoffer visited the site on May 14 over a complaint that the contractor’s permit wasn’t visible.

However, a resident has said his complaint alleged far more serious problems about the safety of the demolition work underway. And another person took a video on June 2, a Sunday, that shows workers using equipment to pull down the facade and bricks spilling down on the sidewalk, which remained open and has a staircase to an underground transit stop.

Demolition subcontractor Sean Benschop, accused of being impaired by marijuana and painkillers while operating heavy equipment just before the collapse, has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter. He also had his right hand in a cast, but his lawyer has said he was fit to work.

Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell also was onsite, and Basciano was believed to be there. Basciano’s lawyer has declined to comment. Campbell’s lawyer has said Benschop was supposed to be taking the wall down by hand, to protect the Salvation Army store.

Wagenhoffer started working for the city as a carpenter in 1997 and worked his way up to his post as an inspector, earning just over $60,000 a year, city records show. He was nominated for a top safety award in the Department of Licenses and Inspections in 2011.

His family did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

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