Worker in building collapse faces manslaughter charges, had pot in system

PHILADELPHIA — The 42-year-old man who was operating the excavator in Wednesday’s building collapse in Philadelphia will be charged with risking and causing a catastrophe and six counts of involuntary manslaughter, a senior law enforcement official told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday.

Blood tests revealed marijuana in Sean Benschop’s system at levels that “he was unfit to perform safety-sensitive, job-related duties,” according to a toxicology report.

Benschop, who has also used the name Kary Roberts, according to court records, will additionally be charged with reckless endangerment and will face other charges from the injuries to 14 victims of the collapse.

The charges of causing a catastrophe and risking a catastrophe are felonies. The involuntary-manslaughter charges are first-degree misdemeanors.

The report found it “reasonably scientifically certain” that Benschop, who has been arrested 11 previous times, including for drugs, was an “active recent user of marijuana.”

The blood tests were conducted shortly after the collapse. They were at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where Benschop was treated for minor injuries.

Benschop was not in custody Friday afternoon and declined to comment when reached on his cellphone.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter apologized Friday for the deadly collapse and announced standards and enforcement actions designed to prevent similar tragedies.

Promising during an afternoon City Hall news conference to “find out what went wrong … and hold those responsible accountable,” Nutter said the new rules would require better inspections of demolition sites and quicker action to shut down shoddy work.

Despite citizen complaints in the weeks before the building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets, city building inspectors did not visit the site while the building was being demolished.

Benschop was demolishing the four-story building next to a Salvation Army thrift store when the remaining structure collapsed onto the store, killing six people.

A law enforcement source said Benschop had used the excavator to remove a second-story beam just seconds before the building toppled onto the shop.

He had begun work at the site about two weeks ago, according to law enforcement sources. He was working Wednesday with a cast on a hand from an injury sustained at a different work site, a law enforcement source previously said.

Benschop said Thursday that he had operated his own demolition company for more than a year and that “Griff” hired him and his apparatus for the Market Street job.

That was an apparent reference to Griffin T. Campbell, the contractor hired by property owner Richard Basciano to demolish the building. Campbell, who filed for bankruptcy protection in March, also has a criminal record stemming from a phony car-wreck scheme involving a Philadelphia police officer, according to court records.

Benschop served two prison terms in the 1990s for drug convictions, records show. It is unclear how long he spent in jail.

Benschop has also been convicted 16 times in traffic court since 2006, most for driving without a license or insurance and for operating unregistered vehicles, records show.

Neighbors on Benschop’s street, on their porches during an early-evening downpour, said they did not know Benschop well but often saw him arriving home in the evenings.

They said he lived with two children in a modest rowhouse in the middle of the block. Some had seen a police car outside the house earlier Friday. A light was on inside the house, but no one answered the door.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulations forbid the operation of commercial trucks under the influence of any drugs, or with a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 or above, said Lou Agre, organizer and in-house counsel for Operating Engineers Local 542.

But there are no city or state regulations governing the use of an excavator, Agre said, and no license or qualifications necessary to rent a piece of equipment — “zero, none.”

“All you need to demolish a building,” Agre said, “is $300 for the demolition permit and a credit card to rent the piece of equipment.”