At least 3 die in collapse of Atlantic City garage

Parking structure was under construction for casino

20 are injured

October 31, 2003|By Robert Polner | Robert Polner,NEWSDAY

The top five tiers of a parking garage under construction for an Atlantic City, N.J., casino fell onto one another yesterday morning like playing cards, killing three people and injuring 20.

One person remained in the structure last night, authorities said.

A large section of the gambling city's midtown area was shut down as rescuers sped to the scene of twisted metal and fractured concrete, as the injured were evacuated, and as distraught family members arrived to learn the fate of their loved ones.

"It sounded like an earthquake. The whole building was shaking," said Harold Simmons, 42, a pipefitter who was on the second floor of the garage when it caved in above him.

He said he heard a rumble, then looked at a co-worker. "You didn't know where to run."

Simmons said he ran to one staircase, but it had been wiped out. He eventually followed other workers down another set of stairs.

One person died at Atlantic City Medical Center and two of the dead were taken out of the building, one at 3:05 p.m. and the other at 6:50 p.m., officials said.

Last night, authorities were trying to figure out how to extricate the person remaining in the garage. They would not say whether that person was alive.

"We're not willing to sacrifice our guys right now until that place is stable," Deputy Fire Chief John Bercheiko said.

The person was trapped just beneath the floors that collapsed.

"It's an extremely dangerous, precarious place," Bercheiko said.

The structure's top five stories collapsed at 10:40 a.m., slamming into one another at a steep angle.

Robert Levy, the city's emergency management director, called the accident "one of the worst collapses Atlantic City has ever seen," and he and other officials raised the specter of the rest of the unfinished structure buckling, too.

Search cameras and dogs were sent in to search. Several hours later, search-and-rescue teams began to comb the rubble.

The 10-story garage, on Brighton Avenue between Atlantic and Pacific avenues, was being built for the Tropicana Casino and Resort and was to have 2,400 parking spaces.

An adjacent 18-story hotel tower also is under construction.

Both projects were part of the planned 200,000-square-foot development of non-casino entertainment and retail dubbed "The Quarter" - a Tropicana expansion project inspired partly by the spring debut of the first new casino to open in Atlantic City since 1990, the $1.1-billion Borgata. The development was slated to open in March.

The general contractor of the garage was Keating Construction Corp., said Jennifer Monahan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Division of Codes and Standards.

Officials at Keating, in Philadelphia, did not immediately return calls yesterday.

One construction worker injured in the garage collapse previously had fallen through a floor at the site, his wife told the Associated Press yesterday.

Lisa Treat, 30, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., said her husband, Lenny, hurt his ankle in that accident almost a year ago. Two other workers injured then have not returned to work full time, she said.

"I just think it's a big rush job. That's why all these men are getting hurt and dying," Lisa Treat said.

Her 32-year-old husband was on the sixth floor when yesterday's collapse occurred and was pulled out by firefighters. He had cuts and injuries to his back and legs.

An accident at the site occurred in October 2002, when workers were injured after a one-story prefabricated panel of concrete they were standing on collapsed.

Gov. James E. McGreevey said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration would lead the investigation of the accident.

Maureen Siman, a spokeswoman for the casino, called the collapse "a tragedy."

"We're devastated," she said. "We just hope the workers are OK."

Workers gathered at the foot of the structure, their hardhats emblazoned with American flags, and many of them gazed at their wrecked handiwork in bewilderment.

"I heard all those floors go. The whole tower shook, like it was a miniature earthquake," said Jim McNeill, 56, a caulker who was working at the parking garage with 300 to 400 other laborers when the collapse occurred.

McNeill said he looked down and saw five men lying on the ground, only one moving.

"It's a real good possibility that we lost a couple of guys today," he said.

Freelance writer Jeremy Olshan contributed to this article, which was based on wire service reports. Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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