The Wall Comes Tumbling Down

Rick Eggers provides a harrowing account of a Jersey City, NJ, building collapse and the rescue of victims trapped under the debris.


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.

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