The Wall Comes Tumbling Down

The afternoon of Jan. 19, 1998, was cool and sunny in Jersey City, NJ. It was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Journal Square, a commercial area, was busy with shoppers looking for holiday bargains. In the center of the square, at 2846 Kennedy Blvd., stood the old State Theater, a...


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The afternoon of Jan. 19, 1998, was cool and sunny in Jersey City, NJ. It was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Journal Square, a commercial area, was busy with shoppers looking for holiday bargains.

In the center of the square, at 2846 Kennedy Blvd., stood the old State Theater, a brick structure erected in 1928 and undergoing demolition. A demolition company had already removed the roof of the theater and gutted the interior. Workers had also brought down the building's rear wall on the Sip Avenue side and were taking down the western wall, which was 60 feet high and 175 feet long. The western wall butted against a two-story, 75-by-175-foot brick commercial structure that housed a computer school in the basement, a discount store on the first floor and a secretarial school on the second floor.

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Photo Courtesy of Jersey City Fire Department
A firefighter views the area where all the collapse debris settled. It took two hours to extricate the most severely trapped person.

 


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Photo Courtesy of Jersey City Fire Department
After a portion of the wall of the 70-year-old State Theatre collapsed, a free-standing 60-foot section of the southwest corner of the structure is left towering over rescuers.

 

Demolition workers had erected a 40-foot scaffold along the western wall on the roof of the two-story commercial structure. Ten employees were working with a hydraulic jackhammer and sledgehammers on the scaffold when suddenly they realized the wall of the State Theater was about to collapse. All the workers managed to get off the scaffold and clear the area as a section of the brick wall 30 feet high by 70 feet wide collapsed.

The wall came down, taking the scaffold with it through the roof of the two-story commercial structure, traveling through the entire building and into the basement. The accident left a 12-by-60-foot hole in the roof. Because of the holiday, there were no classes in the basement or on the second floor but many shoppers were in the discount store. They were driven into the basement with the wall, the scaffold, the roof and upper floor of the building on top of them. The southwest corner of the wall, about 60 feet in height, with a fire escape attached remained upright, teetering over the collapsed area and the southern exposure, Sip Avenue.

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Photo by Joe Lovero
Jersey City and FDNY firefighters work together in the basement of the discount store. Note the debris on the floor and the extensive collapse area in background.

 


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Photo Courtesy of Jersey City Fire Department
Firefighters use a jackhammer to break up pieces of brick on the first floor of the discount store.

 

The Response

At 2:15 P.M., the Jersey City Fire Department received a report of an explosion at 2844 Kennedy Blvd. The department dispatched four engine companies, two truck companies, Rescue Company 1 (R-1) and the 4th Battalion chief (BC) to the scene. Because the pressure of the collapsing wall had blown out sidewalk windows, the officer of the first-arriving unit, Engine 15, gave a brief description of the building and reported he had an explosion and numerous people trapped in the rubble, then went to work. After his report, the first-alarm assignment was filled out by dispatching Deputy Chief 1, the safety officer, the mask-service unit and Squad Company 4.

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Photo Courtesy of Jersey City Fire Department
A front view of the theater building, which was in the process of being demolished, before the wall collapse occurred. The collapse sent the wall, debris, scaffolding and shoppers into the basement of the adjacent building.

The battalion chief assessed the situation and assumed command. Because of the depth of the structure, a second tower ladder, Truck 4, was called to respond to the Sip Avenue side of the building; Truck 6, a tower ladder, was already responding on the first alarm to the front of the building. The deputy chief then arrived. He assumed command, set up his command post on Kennedy Boulevard and called for a second alarm, with all second-alarm companies staging one block away. On his arrival, the chief of department assumed command, assigned the deputy chief as the operations officer and requested two additional truck companies.

Incident Command

The Jersey City Fire Department has been using the incident command system for about four years for every operation requiring more than one piece of apparatus. All members have been trained in its use.

After being assigned as the operations officer, the deputy chief surveyed the rear of the structure on Sip Avenue. He reported that because of safety factors and control problems, the rear of the structure was a better location for the command post, so it was moved. When the incident commander (IC) arrived there, he saw the following:

  • Fire, police, and medical personnel were randomly, without any coordination, entering the building and trying to remove injured people. These personnel were operating under the teetering building corner of the State Theater.
  • Emergency vehicles were parked under the building corner and in the collapse zone.
  • Spectators, news media and passersby were standing in the collapse zone.

The safety officer was instructed to tape off the collapse zone and one company was ordered to remove everyone from the collapse zone. The IC then requested ranking supervisors from all agencies on the scene: Jersey City Police, Port Authority of NY/NJ Police, Emergency Medical Services (ambulance service) and the New York City Police Special Services Unit.

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Drawings by Captain Victor Petrucelli/Jersey City Fire Department

The IC's first order of business was to gain control of the situation and move the entire operation out of the collapse zone. This proved to be a monumental task. To do this, the IC had to relinquish command to the deputy chief so that he, by the power of his rank as chief of department, could gather all supervisors and have them remove their personnel from the collapse zone. Every time he thought he accomplished this, personnel would return and he would have to reach out for the supervisors again. Paramount on his mind was the possibility of a secondary collapse and having to rescue the rescuers.

Another major consideration at this time was the safety of members working inside the structure. The gas company, the electric company and the water department were notified to respond. The water company was extremely critical as some victims were pinned to the basement floor by debris and in danger of drowning. Firefighters had to hold victims' heads above the water until the victims could be freed from beneath the debris.

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Photo by Joe Lovero
FDNY Rescue 1 Captain John Norman, in photo at above, joined Jersey City Captain, now Battalion Chief, Robert Cobb and FDNY Rescue 3 Firefighter Mickey Conboy in working at the collapse. All are contributing editors for Firehouse® Magazine.

The command post was being staffed by Battalion Chief John Drennan and Captain Victor Petrucelli, who were maintaining the command post manpower board. Also, Battalion Chief William Peters was being utilized as a logistics officer. These three positions proved critical to the coordination and the successful conclusion of this incident.

Inside the building, firefighters formed human chains to remove debris and clear stock from the aisles so that a pathway could be created for removal of the victims. After all the people who could be removed from the rubble were out, the complex operation of removing the most severely trapped person took precedence. This extrication took about two hours due to the victim's severe injuries and the amount of debris which had to be removed. Simultaneously, a coordinated effort was under way to search all voids for other possible victims.

About 30 minutes into the incident, a request was transmitted for the New York City Fire Department's Building Collapse Unit. Also, the Jersey City and New York City police supplied dogs to assist in the search for victims.

It took 45 minutes from the initial response to gain and maintain the integrity of the scene. To show the extreme need to maintain the integrity of the scene and establish a collapse zone, the FDNY personnel, upon their arrival one hour into the incident, requested the immediate enlargement of the collapse zone.

An assessment of the stability of the southwest corner of the building by the city's Building Department was made. Heavy equipment was staged but it was decided that the corner was stable and rescue operations could continue. The FDNY personnel set up a surveyor's transit to continuously monitor this corner.

The Jersey City Fire Department has a dedicated safety officer of captain's rank responding to all emergency incidents; for this incident, however, three safety officers were needed and were drawn from other captains. One safety officer was placed in charge of the Sip Avenue entrance ,where he allowed only authorized personnel with full turnout gear to enter the structure and logged the name and time of everyone going in and coming out. The other two safety officers were placed, one on the first floor and the other in the basement, to oversee the safety of operations at those locations.

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Seventeen people were taken to the hospital from this incident, two of them in critical condition. All of the victims have recovered and been released from the hospital. During this operation, more than 100 rescue personnel from various agencies were utilized.

Lessons Learned

  • Gain control of the incident. Have a pre-arranged agreement with other city agencies as to who is in command at different types of incidents. For example:
  1. Fire - Fire Dept.
  2. Bomb threat - Police Dept.
  3. Building collapse - Fire Dept.
  4. Water main break - DPW
  5. Mass-casualty incident - EMS

3 Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editors Respond To Jersey City Building Collapse

The mutual aid response to the Jersey City, NJ, building collapse from the FDNY brought together three Firehouse® Magazine contributing editors. Jersey City Rescue 1 Captain Robert Cobb (now a battalion chief), FDNY Rescue 1 Captain John Norman and FDNY Rescue 3 Firefighter Mickey Conboy all participated in the search and rescue operations at the incident.

The Jersey City Fire Department presented Unit Citations to both FDNY rescue companies at its annual Medal Day awards ceremony on May 21, 1998. This was the first time that Unit Citations were bestowed on out-of-town fire units. Several FDNY officers who were present at the building collapse also were given awards at the ceremony.


Rick Eggers has been the chief of the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department for two years. He has been a member of the department for 24 years. Eggers has also been the fire official of the City of Jersey City and has bachelor's degree in mathematics and fire science.

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