Sean Benschop turned himself in to Philadelphia police Saturday to face manslaughter charges in the deaths of six people after a four-story building he was helping demolish collapsed Wednesday on a Salvation Army thrift store next door. Pending charges include six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person and a charge of risking a catastrophe.
Authorities are accusing Benschop, 42, of being high on marijuana while operating an excavator at the demolition site. It is believed Benschop was driving the heavy equipment near the remainder of the building when it collapsed and tumbled onto the thrift store next to it. Four customers and two store employees were killed and 13 others suffered injuries.
Benschop has a long and varied criminal history. Court records show that since1994 he has faced 11 arrests, charged with theft, weapons possession, drug infractions, and aggravated assault. Twice he was sentenced to prison after he was convicted of trafficking drugs.
Everett Gillison,Philadelphia’s deputy mayor, announced at a press conference Friday evening that a toxicology report disclosed that Benschop had marijuana in his system when the building collapse occurred. That report, statements from witnesses and other evidence found at the site,convinced authorities to search Benschop’s Philadelphia home Friday. They later request a warrant for his arrest.
Even as prosecutors built the case against Benschop,also known as Kary Roberts,lawsuits were filed on behalf of two of the survivors. Both the demolition company and the owner of the collapsed building are being sued for alleged gross negligence at the demolition site.
On Friday the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, promised the city would get tougher on demolition contractors. He told reporters that in light of the tragedy changes need to be made.”
His plans for reform include requiring demolition contractors to collect more background information on employees’ experience and recurrent inspections of job sites while demolitions are taking place. He also wants to instigate random drug testing of heavy equipment operators who work at construction sites.
Griffin Campbell, the owner of the demolition company contracted to demolish the building, also has a criminal history and previously filed bankruptcy two times. Lawyers who are handling the law suit for the two injured survivors say Campbell violated federal safety practices. They also said Richard Basciano,the building’s owner, should have used better judgment and selected a more competent and qualified demolition crew.
Maj. Robert W. Dixon, director of operations for The Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia, said Friday that the Salvation Army had earlier expressed concern about the demolition and had their attorney contact the building owner’s attorney who assured them that all safety precautions would be followed.
According to construction engineers the store should have been closed and evacuated during precarious portions of the neighboring demolition project.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, 50-year-old Linda Bell, said she was shopping in the Salvation Army store when the collapse occurred. The resulting force hurtled her down to the basement where she lay buried under rubble for over an hour.
It was the first day on the job for one of the female employees who was killed by the collapsed building.