With the recent news that the Pennsylvania Superior Court won’t seek felony charges in the deaths of partygoers at the Pier 34 disaster five years ago, three families have found themselves betrayed by the court system.
On the evening of May 28, 2000, Pier 34, home to the former Club Heat, tumbled into the Delaware River. The outer end of the pier collapsed, sending 40 people into the water and killing three women who were at the club celebrating a birthday. The incident’s only bright side was that it happened relatively early in the night. A few hours later, and the number of clubbers would have been 1000 instead of 40.
In 2002, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner threw out all felony charges against pier owner Michael Asbell and club owner Eli Karetny.
Superior Court Judges Richard B. Klein and Stephen A. McEwen, Jr. sided with Asbell and Karetny in a court ruling whose indifference to the lives lost is astounding. Their claims that “Allowing patrons to go to a restaurant/night club even knowing it will likely collapse amounts to failing to take action to prevent a catastrophe, not causing or risking one” are callous at best and shocking at worth. The Superior Court decision adds insult to injury for the bereaved families.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia is a town where money talks. Asbell and Karetny are responsible for a good deal of Penn Landing properties, even after the loss of Pier 34, and even more real estate and restaurants in the suburbs. DeAnn White, Monica Rodriguez and Jean Marie Ferraro were employees at the New Jersey State Aquarium before the negligence and cost cutting of two businessmen cost them their lives.
It is no surprise that the judges of the Superior Court sided with Asbell and Karetny. The tendency of judges and lawyers to invest in Penn’s Landing real estate and concessions may just be Philadelphia’s worst kept secret. Asbell and Karetny are walking away scot-free; White, Rodriguez and Ferraro are gone forever.
Between the ruling of the Common Pleas Court in 2002 and the Superior Court ruling in 2003, the pair has been vindicated by the law twice. Refusing to press felony charges is an insult to the memories of all affected by the tragedy.
Despite the testimony in court by the engineer who repaired the pier in 1995 that it was a “leaning tower of Pisa” whose owners were too cheap to install the 300 support pilings needed for proper reinforcement, Asbell and Karetny will not be pursued by the court.
Refusing to persecute Michael Asbell and Eli Karetny for the three deaths even though they willingly ran a nightclub on a pier that was one step away from sliding into the Delaware River is both cowardly and puzzling.
We can only wonder what was going through the mind of Judges Klein and McEwen as they gave their rulings.