Could The Philadelphia Building Collapse Have Been Prevented By Bracing Or Helical Piers?

I heard the sirens going by my office today and shortly thereafter the news flashed across my computer screen: the building at 22nd and Market that housed the Salvation Army had collapsed, trapping people inside. When an awful tragedy like that occurs, catastrophic injury lawyers feel the same rush of empathy and emotions as everyone else, but then the wheels start turning:how did this happen? Structural engineering is one of the oldest arts in the world, and buildings today don't just collapse unless someone did something wrong. The Kensington Warehouse Fire that killed two firefighters, for example, wasn't just "an accident" - it was the result of gross neglect of the property, and it was completely preventable.

The moment the news started reporting that the collapse was part of a demolition, I immediately wondered: "did the contractor use helical piers to support the next door foundation?"

The helical pier (a/k/a screw pile) was invented in 1830 by Alexander Mitchell, an Irish engineer. It looks like a giant steel drill bit, and it was originally used to stabilize beachfront structures such as light houses built on sand. The piers were made of cast or wrought iron (or steel) and would be literally screwed into the ground to underpin the foundation. These piers provide more firmness and stability than straight piers.

Without the use of helical piers, the urban demolition contractor is simply asking for trouble. Buildings in the Philadelphia metropolitan area tend to be old, and often lack adequate support for the foundations. In certain sections of the city, foundations can be merely 8-12 inches deep. So, common sense would suggest that tearing away its buttressed walls, could cause collapse.In a tear-down, it is critical that the demolition contractor strengthen the neighboring buildings' foundations.

Before I joined The Beasley Firm, I used to represent demolition companies that would perform tear-downs in row homes and row businesses in blighted neighborhoods for the City of Philadelphia. Inevitably, lawsuits would be filed for damage to the adjacent structure, as the next-door demolition would cause partial and/or complete collapses to its neighboring structure. There is usually a warning that a neighbor's structure has been compromised and, as a matter of course, the first thing I would obtain in my investigation was the City of Philadelphia Inspector's file to see how the project had been progressing and/or whether there was any notice to the contractor that damage to the adjacent property had been made.

Obviously, the same needs to be done here by any lawyer representing the victims of the collapse. I would want to know if the company or any of its subcontractors were given any earlier violations and/or citations from the City and/or OSHA. I would look to see whether the blue prints (if there were any prepared) required the use of helical piers during demolition, and to ensure every precaution was taken to prevent foundational damage to the adjacent structures, like using bracing on any walls that had weak foundations, or from which supports had been removed.

Since I used to be the one to come up with them, I already know the defenses the demolition contractors will raise:

  • Center of City of Philadelphia buildings are all tied in together;
  • There was no immediate damage to the bricks of the adjacent building;
  • The adjacent building had been compromised previously due to long-term rain water and faulty roof leakage;
  • The blueprints did not call for the use of helical piers;
  • The architect and the City Inspector's office had approved of the demolition work.

But the simple answer to all of those defenses is: "use helical piers." When demolition is being performed, it is imperative that shoring equipment and supports be used during and after the demolition. Few currently standing building are so weak that they can't be reinforced for the demolition - or, if they are that weak, then the demolition contractor has an obligation to recognize that, to warn the property owner, and to call off the demolition.

I would be interested to see the blueprints and the Inspector's file on the 22nd and Market project. Right now, with nothing more than a news report, I am quite sure that we would find that no contractor lent the Salvation Army Building the support of helical piers, that an inadequate assessment of the risks was performed, and that bracing wasn’t added to walls and ceilings as their support was removed.

This isn’t rocket science; most of it is required by law. For example, OSHA regulation 1926.850(a) requires:

Prior to permitting employees to start demolition operations, an engineering survey shall be made, by a competent person, of the structure to determine the condition of the framing, floors, and walls, and possibility of unplanned collapse of any portion of the structure. Any adjacent structure where employees may be exposed shall also be similarly checked. The employer shall have in writing evidence that such a survey has been performed.

Did the demolition contractors do that? I’d say probably not - if they had, this wouldn’t have happened. Odds are, either they didn’t do a proper survey, didn’t use helical piers, or didn’t add bracing to a structure after removing the supports. There’s good odds they didn’t do any of those. It’s our experience that catastrophes whether they be airplane crashes or building collapses, are the result of multiple simultaneous failures. Indeed, rumors have surfaced about the quality and safety of work there, including this disturbing claim that, a month before the tragedy, someone in the neighborhood filed this complaint with Philly311:

The workers are not wearing any safety equipment (not even hardhats while working to demolish brick facades with crowbars). The sidewalk is not adequately protected, and there appears to be no adequate plan to prevent the collapse of walls or facing materials onto pedestrians and those exiting the subway.

If true, then this tragedy was not merely preventable, and not merely negligent; it was criminal.

For over fifty years, The Beasley Firm has set the standard for representing the injured in catastrophic accidents, with hundreds of successful verdicts and settlements for our clients. Our construction accident team include attorneys who have more than 30 years combined experience in handling construction accidents, injuries and fatalities, alongside the top investigators, structural engineers, and demolition experts in the country.

If your loved one has been injured in a building collapse and you are investigating the possibility of filing a workers' compensation claim and/or third party lawsuit, contact our firm for a free, confidential review by our experienced construction accident lawyers. You can use the online form above, or call the firm's main line at (215) 592-1000.

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