NJ parking garage collapses; at least 1 trapped

The latest collapse happened around 2:30 p.m. Saturday while crews were removing rubble, glass and other debris from the Hackensack site. It came one day after the three-story garage had pancaked when a glass canopy attached to a nearby high-rise condominium building fell on it.

July 16, 2010 6:33:56 PM PDT
A glass canopy attached to a high-rise condominium building fell onto a parking garage two stories below on Friday, partially collapsing the underground structure and trapping at least one person, authorities said.

Using a remote camera and a robot, rescuers could see one victim in a car on the first level down but couldn't get to the person because they were concerned about the possibility of another collapse at the three-story garage, Hackensack fire Lt. Stephen Lindner said. They could not determine the victim's condition.

Crews were clearing debris and shoring up the structure before they could attempt to rescue the victim.

"We are absolutely making progress" in getting to the victim, Lindner said. "We have engineers on the scene, but right now it looks like the building is structurally sound."

Authorities were checking out whether a second person might also be trapped in another car, Lindner said. Surveillance cameras detected a car on an exit ramp two levels down around the time of the collapse, but rescuers haven't been able to get a camera close enough to determine if there was someone inside.

Neither car was completely flattened, Lindner said.

"There is some chance of survivability there," he said, but added that the cameras haven't detected any movement.

The garage pancaked when the canopy fell on it, damaging vehicles. The top of the garage, level with the street, was littered with dirt, debris and glass, and the pavement split into chunks.

Rachel LaValle, 26, said she was driving out of the garage and had reached the street level when she noticed a cloud of thick white dust. Mistaking it for smoke, she got out of her car to check for a fire. Then, seeing through the dust to the part of the garage that had collapsed, she got back in her car, shifted it into reverse, parked and ran out of the garage.

She saw water spilling out of pipes and a big hole where part of the garage had once stood.

"There was still dirt coming down at me," she said.

It's unclear why the canopy fell from the 22-year-old building, which is adjacent to the garage. Several residents said workers had uprooted a tree between the street and the building within the past few months, and that a leak in the basement was being fixed.

Resident Chris Baldo was in his first-floor unit when he felt the building shake. He looked out his window and the garage "was just gone," he said.

Irene Casapulla, who lives on the second floor, said she heard "a bunch of thumping, and all of a sudden it sounded like an earthquake."

All residents were evacuated as a precaution and weren't expected to be allowed to return before Sunday at the earliest, Lindner said. Some were briefly let back in to retrieve pets and medications.

Residents in surrounding buildings were allowed to stay in their apartments but prohibited from driving in the area; emergency crews worried vibrations could cause further damage.

One firefighter was wheeling a luggage cart stacked with cases of water for emergency workers out in the 90-degree heat.

Tax records show the condo tower was built in 1988. Equity Residential Properties of Chicago bought in 1998 for $36.3 million. Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Equity Residential, said the building owner did not have much information yet about what happened.

"We're trying to let the fire department do what they do," he said.

Police were checking with the building management company for a list of tenants, but no one was reported missing so far, Chief Tomas Padilla said.

Jon Morrison, a structural engineer at CVM Engineers in Oaks, Pa., saw video of the collapse on the news.

He said the video made him wonder if one of the main columns supporting the structure may have failed first, rather than the glass canopy.

He said recent heavy rains could have weighed down the landscaping on the ground level, and that the foundation could have been undermined. Once a column goes, he said, it would be easy for parking decks to collapse.

He said it's rare for a completed structure to fail. "Once they're up for five minutes," Morrison said, "they tend to stay for 50 years."

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J., contributed to this report.


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