Philadelphia Inspector Commits Suicide Week After Building Collapse

building collapse photo

A week after six people died in the collapse of a Salvation Army Thrift Shop, a city inspector dies as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot.

Ronald Wagenhoffer, 52, was found dead in his pickup truck in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia with a self-inflicted wound. He had been an inspector with the city’s License and Inspection Department for 16 years.

According to City officials, on February 12, Wagenhoffer conducted an inspection of the site where the building collapsed and issued a demolition permit.  After issuing the permit, a second inspection is required before the start of the demolition, which was not performed because the contractor did not inform the city that it was about to start.

Reports show that Mr. Wagenhoffer inspected an adjacent demolition site at 2134 Market Street on May 14, in response to a public complaint, but he issued no citations, city officials said.

“We’re a city in deep and profound mourning. With the building collapse a week ago we have now lost seven lives with this tragedy,” Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said today. “We’re still burying people from last week, now we have to bury someone from today.”

Consequently, questions have risen on what responsibility, if any, the city has in the collapse of the building.

“This man did nothing wrong,” Mr. Gillison said. “He did his job, and he did it the way he was supposed to do it. The department did what it was supposed to do under the code at the time. We are proud of this department.”

On Monday, R. Seth Williams, the city’s district attorney, stated that a grand jury will investigate the building collapse and determine if other criminal charges will be made.

On Saturday, Sean Benschop was charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of reckless endangerment, and causing and risking a catastrophe.  After the collapse Benschop was tested, and marijuana and pain killers were detected in his blood.

The grand jury inquiry will permit the district attorney’s office to further investigate, obtain information from witnesses, and inquire into the city’s involvement and obtain records from the city. If the investigation finds evidence of criminal responsibility, city employee’s maybe charged.

Carlton Williams, the city’s commissioner of licenses and inspections, stated that the contractor failed to inform his office, which is a requirement, that work was about to begin.

Benschop’s arrest has people wondering if he is being used as a scapegoat to keep from charging the contractor and the owner of the building.

“There is no taking the fall,” said Jennifer Selber, an assistant district attorney. “This was an initial step.” She said toxicology tests on Mr. Benschop “showed that he was under the influence.”

Six of the people injured in the collapse have filed complaints against Benschop, the contractor and the owner of the building.  One of the plaintiffs is, Felecia Hill, a sales person for the Salvation Army Thrift Store who was rescued from the ruins of the building.

The mother of six said she was in the back of the store when she heard bricks following.

“When I heard the bricks falling, I felt a shaking like an earthquake. Then I heard a gust of wind coming in, and I saw the wall falling,” Ms. Hill said at a news conference organized by her lawyers. “The only thing I could think about was my children.”

Mrs. Hill also stated that she and her co-workers have heard bricks following on the roof for weeks.  She was not sure if anyone reported it.

“I was just hoping nothing would happen, but it did,” she said.

The Philadelphia City Council is also conducting its own investigation into the collapse, joining others like the police and fire department who are also conducting investigations.

According to Darrell Clark, council president, a five member team will review the management of vacant land and blighted property and enlist the opinions of experts on demolition practices and make the necessary recommendations to legislation.

Councilman James F. Kenney, who will be a part of the investigative committee, stated that the addition of six construction inspectors has already been proposed in the city budget for the next fiscal year, but added that even that number is not enough.

Mayor Michael Nutter called the death Wednesday of 52-year-old Wagenhoffer “astounding” and “painful.”

By: Veverly Edwards

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