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The June 5 building collapse at 22nd and Market Street killed six people and injured 13 in an avalanche of brick and steel. But the collapse snatched more than lives. It stole our sense of security, and when the dust settled, we were left with questions. We were left with anger. We were left with grief.
The tragedy, which took place when a wall from a building that was being demolished fell on the Salvation Army Thrift Store, spurred a flurry of activity. City Council hearings and investigations by the police, the fire marshal, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the city inspector general, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were announced. Mayor Michael Nutter announced a tightening of the rules governing private demolitions. District Attorney Seth Williams announced plans to convene a grand jury investigation.
But even as Philadelphians strained to keep up with the flurry of rule changes and course corrections that should have happened before this seemingly avoidable tragedy, an impromptu memorial was erected. Pictures were affixed. Words were written. Trinkets were placed. And as passersby stopped to gaze at that tribute, they began the healing process that often follows tragedy, according to psychiatrists.
Myriad explanations are available as to why such memorials are placed at sites where catastrophes have occurred. Dr. William Dubin, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Temple University School of Medicine, says such memorials can be an expression of empathy for the victims, but they can also tap into one’s personal sense of loss.
“People who’ve lost important people in their lives, these kinds of losses — even though they don’t know the victims — invoke a sense of loss for yourself,” Dubin said. “Laying the wreath for the people at the construction site is also acknowledging the people who were important to you.”
Other reasons explain why we build memorials, some of which go back thousands of years.
“It’s directly tied to needing to remember; the need to acknowledge where there is danger; where there is a lack of safety,” said Dr. Steven Berkowitz, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of Penn’s Youth and Family Trauma Response Program. “It’s for everybody to recognize that a tragedy happened here … something bad happened here and we all have to remember.”
In recent decades, however, impromptu memorials have become more than that, according to The Handbook of Death and Dying by Clifton D. Bryant. They are now symbols of mourning that can be erected at the side of a road after a motor vehicle fatality, or outside an apartment entrance, as they were after the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law in a 1999 plane crash.
In Philadelphia, and cities like it, memorials have begun to mark spots where homicides occur. Such memorials don’t just represent people mourning for the victims. Like the memorial at the site of the building collapse, they also represent a sense of vulnerability.
“It can happen in any community,” said Temple’s Dr. Dubin. “And it doesn’t have to be a building collapse. All too frequently in Philadelphia an outburst of gunfire kills innocent kids…
“It makes you start questioning, ‘Do in live in a safe place?’ I’m not saying Philadelphia is any better or worse than any other community, but it makes you ask yourself, ‘Gee is the system going to look after my best interests? Is the system doing everything they can to make me safe?’ I think we all think of these questions, and how we were all let down by city government, especially when they received notice from citizens that this is a bad demolition and yet it was still allowed to happen. People ask themselves, ‘Does anybody really care about me? Are they doing the best they can?’ I think all those are legitimate questions.”
Therein lies the issue that makes this particular memorial so heartbreaking. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Logan Square resident Stephen Field emailed 311, the city’s non-emergency service, to report that the demolition at 22nd and Market was unsafe. Field even went so far as to predict that the demolition could lead to a building collapse that could injure someone. Unfortunately, his prediction came true in startling fashion. And now city officials are scrambling to make things right in the wake of a tragedy that could have been avoided.
I asked Dr. Dubin if there is a psychiatric element to the rush to launch investigations and hold hearings after a tragedy such as this one.
“I hope this isn’t too crude,” he said, “but it’s a very simple process. It’s just a basic human cover-your-ass response. It’s nothing more psychiatric than that. [City officials are saying] we screwed up. We’ve got to look like we’re doing something. The more noise they make and the more frenetic the activity, the more guilty they feel.”
Perhaps, but as officials, lawyers and others rush to assign blame in the wake of this tragedy, the memorial at 22nd and Market has become more than a symbol of loss. It has become a memorial to failure: The failure of a city permit and inspection process that allowed building owner Richard Basciano to hire Griffin Campbell’s demolition crew; the alleged failure of Campbell’s crew to use proper safety protocols; and the failure of L&I to adequately respond when a concerned citizen raised the alarm.
Such failures can sometimes end with nothing more than course corrections. But in the most extreme cases, they can end lives. The makeshift memorial propped against the chain link fence at 22nd and Market is a stark reminder of that possibility.
“I just think it’s a very sad event,” Dubin said. “The sad part of it is — and this is what makes it so poignant so painful — it really shouldn’t have happened. That makes it difficult. There’s a feeling of helplessness, sadness and anger because it’s something that shouldn’t have happened.”
So how does a community heal when a senseless calamity engenders those feelings of helplessness, sadness and anger?
“The first and most important way is to come together in supporting and caring about each other,” said Berkowitz, from Penn. “That is crucial. Social connectedness is one of the most important ways. The second is by doing productive social activity. That can help people respond, not in a knee jerk way, but respond in a thoughtful way. … People who are involved and trying to figure out what actually occurred tend to do better because they’re active. Those are the two most important things.”