Last month a vacant building being demolished in downtown Philadelphia toppled onto a Salvation Army thrift shop that was holding a family half-price sale. Among the six people who were killed were a first-year art student, a recently engaged young woman working her first day at the cash register, and a 68-year-old Liberian immigrant who supported his family by unpacking donations and stocking store racks. Thirteen more people were injured.
That’s tragic enough. But a week later, Ronald Wagenhoffer, the 52-year-old city employee who had deemed the demolition safe three weeks earlier, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. He sent a video (or text message, depending on the news account) to his wife saying it was his fault. “I should have looked at those guys," he said. Authorities are treating his death as a suicide.
Why did this man feel solely responsible for these deaths?
- He wasn’t the only person representing an agency or interested party who had reviewed the site. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an engineer for the Salvation Army did as well.
- Authorities had already charged an excavator (or crane, depending on the news account) operator with involuntary manslaughter for working while impaired.
- The subcontractor who had hired the equipment operator immediately hired a lawyer. Wagenhoffer did not. Nor did he take any time off.
- Philadelphia’s 307 Department of Licenses & Inspections employees enforce the city’s building code, issue licenses and permits, inspect construction and demolition sites, and manage 25,000 vacant structures on a $22 million annual budget.
The department is aggressively deploying technology — a redesigned website that lets developers and contractors to apply online, a smartphone app that residents use to report concerns — to more effectively manage the constant flood of paperwork. Yet Wagenhoffer and 25 other “construction plans review specialists” completed 93,103 inspections in one year.
That’s 3,600 per inspector per year, 300 per month, 75 per week.
That seems like a lot.
Wagenhoffer had worked his way up to lead inspector since joining the department 16 years ago. People describe him as hardworking and always helpful. His boss and the mayor insist he did nothing wrong. He has a 7-year-old son.
Our system holds one person accountable for the mistakes or ethical lapses of others. That takes us off the hook, but it’s a horrible burden for a conscientious human being. Keeping the public safe without slowing desperately needed development should be a collective effort.