The Forgotten Victim of the Salvation Army Building Collapse
Ron Wagenhoffer, the Philadelphia L&I inspector who killed himself in the wake of the tragedy six years ago, deserves to be remembered.
As soon as I heard the accent, I knew it would all be okay.
It was close to midnight, and I was coming home from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I travel regularly for work. Throughout the day, there had been the typical indignities of air travel — delays, overcrowding, crying babies and phlegmy coughing — and I just wanted to get home to my bed and my dog and an episode of Schitt’s Creek.
On the plane, I’d actually started to cry when I saw the Philly skyline — tears of joy, of course, even though I’d only been gone for a week. Then, when I heard my Lyft driver’s Philly accent, all the stress drained out of me. Home! I was home. All the annoyances would still be annoying, but at least there’d be diphthongs.
The driver, Charlie Houck, was pink-cheeked and kind, and he’d eased into the driver’s seat as if he was settling into a Barcalounger to watch a good game. Even when we encountered a hideous detour, he didn’t lose his good cheer — until we stopped for a red light at 22nd and Market.
That corner is now home to the June 5th Memorial park. But six years ago, it was the site of a terrible disaster, when the Salvation Army thrift store collapsed, killing six and injuring 13. The six who died — Anne Bryan, Roseline Conteh, Borbor Davis, Kimberly Finnegan, Juanita Harmon and Mary Simpson — are commemorated there in a work of public art.
As we idled, I said a silent prayer — in my own nonbelieving way — for a seventh victim: Ron Wagenhoffer, the L&I building inspector who died by suicide under a bridge in Roxborough just a week after the collapse. He had been assigned to monitor construction on the work site adjacent to the thrift shop, and he’d inspected it the month before the collapse. He found no violations at the time.
In the front seat, Charlie was quiet. Then he sighed and said: “My buddy died there. Well, I mean, not there. But my buddy Ron, he was the guy … ”
I couldn’t believe it. Big city, small town. That’s Philly.
Ron Wagenhoffer isn’t memorialized at the park, but as I wrote for this magazine shortly after the tragedy, he’s as much a victim of the collapse as the others; it just took a little longer for him to die. After the collapse, he couldn’t sleep, haunted by guilt. City officials stood behind Ron, said he did what he was supposed to do. L&I didn’t plan to take him out of his job or discipline him; in fact, his supervisors told him the collapse wasn’t his fault. But he had always been diligent. The site was his territory. Now, six people were dead.
Charlie remembered talking to Ron and telling him what everyone was telling him: You can’t blame yourself. After Ron’s death, Charlie might have been tempted to say the same thing to himself, except he said no one saw it coming. I told Charlie it wasn’t his fault, and I meant it, though it’s admittedly a cruel irony: We have media campaigns touting suicide prevention, but individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide are told there’s nothing they could have done to stop it. It’s all true.
I explained to Charlie why I was so interested in Ron, saying that while my heart broke for all the people who died in that incident, I took Ron’s suicide personally. I guess the difference is that I’ve never been trapped in the rubble in a building collapse, but as a suicide-attempt survivor, I have been trapped in my own mental rubble. I think I know a bit of what Ron went through.
Charlie said he understood, and shared more of his own experience. It was, without question, the most meaningful conversation I’ve ever had in a Lyft.
When disaster strikes, whether as the result of the depredations of man (mass shootings) or natural forces (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes), we focus on the fatalities. That’s the number that gets trumpeted in headlines and newscasts, as if the extent of a tragedy is measured by its lethality.
But “the deadliest X in modern history” doesn’t tell the story of those whose lives are changed forever by injury, whether physical or mental, and I think there’s a reason for that. As a collective, we don’t want to get stuck in the horror of a tragic event. We want a period to the end of the sentence, and the final death toll provides it.
But many of the injured can’t find such closure. The trauma is always there — no matter how far you swim, you never reach shore. Some trauma survivors keep swimming anyway, because doesn’t the sun feel nice when it shines? Isn’t the water warm and clear? Others are overwhelmed by the futility, and they just can’t do it anymore.
That breaking point can be six days after, as it was for Ron, or six years later, as in the case of Jeremy Richman, the father of a little girl who was killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Richman died by suicide in March, the same month that saw the suicides of Sydney Aiello and Calvin Desir, both once students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a mass shooting took place a little more than a year ago.
The cluster of deaths made headlines and spurred think pieces, yet as I watched the news, I wondered the same thing I always wonder: What are we really doing about this?
Trauma is far from a new problem. PTSD was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, but an awareness of it has been around for decades, at least since World War I, when the term “shell shock” was coined. We’ve been dealing with the fallout of trauma for generations; we still don’t seem able to create momentum to address it with immediacy. Even as incremental changes have been made — schools offer counseling options after a student dies; the Department of Veterans Affairs has enhanced its offerings — trauma treatment remains a should rather than a must. It’s often contextualized as “He should get help.” Get bit by a rabid raccoon? You’re going to get rabies shots. Split your finger open while chopping vegetables? You’re going to the ER for stitches. It’s not “help.” It’s a necessity.
After Ron’s death, then-mayor Michael Nutter was asked if Ron should have been placed on leave. “Each of us deals with our grief and sorrow and any sense of responsibility in a very, very different way. I’m not going to second-guess his judgment to keep working,” Nutter responded, according to NBC 10.
I guess each of us deals with a broken ankle in a different way, too, but we all know to stay off it for a few weeks. If we had a different societal understanding of trauma, Ron’s supervisor would have taken Ron off his regular duties and urged him to access evidence-based treatment that would have been readily available.
“After that collapse, he was just this different person,” his wife, Michele, told me when I reached out to her recently. Her normally quiet, calm husband — who generally kept to himself — became jittery, sleepless and obsessed. “He kept talking about everything that happened; he was constantly worried. His whole personality changed that week.”
The collapse was precisely the kind of tragedy Ron had dreaded when he switched from residential building inspections in West Philadelphia to working in Center City. He took his responsibility extremely seriously; as a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the International Code Council, he took advantage of as many continuing-education opportunities as he could, focusing on safety education and building compliance. “He wanted to learn more to see how he could improve things,” Michele said. “He really put his heart and soul into his work.”
The collapse would have been hard on any building inspector responsible for that site, but Ron’s detail-oriented personality made it worse. This was a man who was so meticulous, he would take a week to organize his gear for a hunting trip. All of the tools he owned were sorted, categorized. The minute something broke at home, he fixed it — and never haphazardly. If a single screw wasn’t right, the job couldn’t be finished.
“I know his fear always was that a building was going to collapse,” Michele explained.
“You’re there to protect people so that no one gets hurt,” Ron told Michele.
When the worst did happen, the fact that he wasn’t disciplined at work and was told by colleagues that it wasn’t his fault didn’t assuage his guilt. With time, perhaps, he would have come to see they were right. But in his heart, in the days after it happened, as he saw the news reports, he was overwhelmed.
The Philadelphia native — he was a Manayunker — was 52 and had been a union carpenter before becoming a building inspector. He and Michele were together for 20 years, 10 of them as husband and wife, and had their son, Luke, in 2005. Ron had come to fatherhood later than most of his friends, but he embraced it totally after Luke was born. There was no time he wouldn’t take for his son, no activity he didn’t want to do with him. “They were buddies,” Charlie recalled. “They went everywhere together.”
After the collapse, Ron found himself dealing with mounds of paperwork related to the site and sitting in meeting after meeting about the accident. Everyone at work was nice and supportive, and some may have even noticed the changes in Ron that Michele and his friends did. But no one imagined how serious the problem was. “I was like, this was just a bad incident, we need to get through this,” Michele said.
Michele described Ron not as a tough guy, exactly, but as a “man’s man. He was happy-go-lucky, never confrontational, a very simple guy who enjoyed the simple things in life.” The idea of complex emotional fallout and concomitant psychological treatment would have been anathema to him — and, indeed, to many people within his circle, as Charlie pointed out. Men who live through hard times have so much pressure on them to be strong. Stoicism gets rewarded; falling apart just pushes people away. On TV shows, police officers involved in shootings have to see a therapist multiple times before being cleared to return to work. That’s not real life. In real life, they have one meeting with an employee assistance program officer, who offers a few optional sessions with a counselor.
The day after Michele found Ron’s body in the car, she woke up alone for the first time in many years.
“I just remember in my bedroom how quiet it was and the sun was up, and I remember that brightness in my room,” Michele said. “I thought, ‘He is never coming back, he is gone.’ I always said to him, ‘You need two people to raise a child.’ How can this be happening? It has to be a bad dream.”
In the Lyft that day, Charlie and I didn’t get into public policy about trauma and survivorship, but I was thinking about it. I just can’t understand why we’re unable to see trauma as an urgent concern, something that requires immediate intervention, as if someone is bleeding. I cut my finger in the Wissahickon the other day, and a team of Boy Scouts frantically ran to my side with first-aid supplies as though they were medics in Afghanistan. The sense of urgency was admirable; I just wish that same heart-pounding rush could be applied to victims of psychic wounds, too.
Instead, Charlie and I spoke about how we wished Ron could be remembered in some way at the site, to pay tribute to the fact that he existed and that he lost his life as a result of the collapse. Neither of us felt like such a tribute should be obtrusive, but we talked about maybe a little plaque in the adjacent sidewalk. It would acknowledge that Ron was here, that he mattered, that his wife and son miss him.
A plaque would have Ron’s name, but others could see their own story reflected in it. It would be a little flash of dignity, and an important reminder to those who struggle. And maybe it would spur conversation around suicide and trauma care. I reached out to Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and asked what it would take to get a plaque in the sidewalk. Naturally, it’s a process, but the response was initially positive.
Michele is open to the idea of some acknowledgement for Ron but reluctant to push it. She, like Ron, is nonconfrontational. Whatever it is, though, she’d like it to be unassuming, like Ron.
“I think it would be a great thing,” she said. “If it’s just a simple thing, that’s all the better.”
For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text to 741-741. Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Published as “The Other Victim” in the July 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.