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Philly building inspector's last words: 'It was my fault'

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The lead inspector of a Center City building that collapsed last week is dead after committing suicide, Philadelphia city officials confirmed Thursday.

"I was just astounded to find this out," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "We're really talking about a city in pain right now and trying to recover."

Ronald Wagenhoffer, 52, was found dead around 9:30 Wednesday night of an apparent suicide, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said at a news conference Thursday morning.

NBC10 Philadelphia learned that Wagenhoffer left a final video message for his family before killing himself, where he admits he was at fault.

"It was my fault. I should have looked at those guys working, and I didn't. When I saw it was too late. I should have parked my truck and went over there but I didn't. I'm sorry." On the cell phone video, Wagenhoffer said he couldn't sleep because six people died and 13 others were injured in the collapse.

Law enforcement sources say Wagenhoffer shot himself once in the chest inside his pickup truck along a wooded section of the 100 block of Shawmont Avenue in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. That's less than a mile from his home.

"I think what you have here is a 16-year-employee who cared very deeply about his job," said Nutter. "We don't know all the things that may have been going through his mind."

Wagenhoffer did not leave behind a physical note instead opting for the video. 

A source close to the investigation who did not want to be named because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the case, said Wagenhoffer had been grieving for days and felt responsible. They said Wagenhoffer did not take any time off after the collapse because he thought sticking to his work routine might help him deal with the tragedy.

Nutter, who is in Chicago, was asked if Wagenhoffer should have been placed on leave after the building collapse."Each of us deals with our grief and sorrow and any sense of responsibility in a different way. I'm not going to second guess his judgment to keep working," Nutter responded. He said Wagenhoffer had been in constant contact with his supervisor and was offered time off, but declined.

City officials said Wagenhoffer visited the demolition site of an adjacent building, 2134 Market Street, on May 14 after a citizen expressed safety concerns. During his inspection, no violations were found.

L&I records also show Wagenhoffer completed and passed an initial inspection at 2136 Market Street on February 25.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams called Wagenhoffer an outstanding employee.

“He was a dedicated civil servant who did his job," he said. "He started in the Department of Public Property and moved his way up through the ranks as one of our top code officials in the Department of Licenses & Inspections."

Last Wednesday, the four-story outer wall of 2136 Market Street crumbled onto the Salvation Army Thrift Store next door. Six people were killed in the collapse -- three employees and three patrons. The wall also buried 13 others who were in different areas throughout the store, including the basement. They were eventually rescued by citizens and first responders.

Excavator operator Kane R. Robert, also known as Sean Benschop, stands charged in the collapse. Investigators with the District Attorney's homicide unit say he tested positive for the pain killer Percocet and marijuana on the day of the collapse. They allege he was in no condition to operate heavy machinery. A grand jury has been convened to investigate the circumstances surrounding the collapse.

City officials said that fellow employees and Commissioner Williams reached out to Wagenhoffer in the days after the collapse.

"This man did nothing wrong," Deputy Mayor Gillison said. "The department did what it was supposed to do under the code that existed at the time."

Nutter said the city is also encouraging other employees to get emotional support if they need it.

"Obviously I don't know why this happened, but we've tried to send a message out certainly to all of our public employees who are deeply affected by this, especially those who worked with Ron," Nutter said.

Wagenhoffer leaves behind a wife, Michele and 7-year-old son.

Deputy Mayor Gillison added there are five investigations underway regarding the collapse and that the city is "proud" of L&I's work.
Griffin Campbell was the contractor overseeing the demolition. In a statement released by his attorney Kenneth Edelin, he said "heartfelt condolences go to the family of the inspector."

"We also continue to pray for the families of those that were lost, and for the health and speedy recovery of those that were injured," the statement continued.