Garage collapse residents cope with displacement

July 19, 2010 3:35:15 PM PDT
In the wake of the parking garage collapse in Hackensack, emergency officials are telling displaced residents to pack for the long haul.

Some displaced residents are staying at hotels, others are staying with family.

Building officials tell Eyewitness News that it could be as long as 2 months before more than 300 people are allowed to move home.

That's the worst case scenario, if building inspectors decide the columns holding up 300 Prospect Street sustained structural damage as a result of Friday's parking garage collapse.

"We left there with nothing. I have receipts for everything I purchased just to survive day to day," said resident, Lillian Cooper.

More than 300 residents will be allowed in for a short time Wednesday to collect the essentials.

That doesn't include their cars, many of which are buried deep within what remains of the parking garage.

"Last month I bought a brand new car and it's in the rubble, so it's devastating," said resident, Rev. Dennis Parham.

Some elderly residents are still reeling from the evacuation Friday.

Angie Montana's husband had to be rushed to the hospital.

"We had to walk down 14 flights, and he's elderly and I'm elderly," Montana said.

For now, city officials say the building management is footing displaced residents' hotel bills.

But some renters say even if they are allowed to move back in, they don't want to.

"I do not want to stay here anymore. I do not like high rises. I'm afraid, I'm afraid of the building," said a resident.

Hackensack inspectors are looking at other buildings in the area to assess their integrity.

So far, they have inspected about two-thirds of the columns holding up the building, and have found no issues.

Sixty days before huge slabs of concrete and sheets of glass came crashing down in Hackensack, an engineer from Union City says he told the property managers they had a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Investigators say it will likely be a while before they have answers as to what happened and why the structure pancaked.

In an Eyewitness News Exclusive, an engineer who reviewed the site less than two months ago says he warned of a possible "catastrophic collapse".

As shocking and traumatic as the garage collapse was, a New Jersey inspector tells Eyewitness News that he saw disaster coming.

"My gut feeling was that there was going to be a collapse, I didn't know when," said Rudy Vasquez, a licensed engineer.

Vasquez inspected 300 Prospect Avenue back in May.

He was asked by a plumber, not the building, to investigate why there was so much water leaking into the garage.

Vasquez said it looked like a pool, and that the structure was in trouble.

His report reads like a crystal ball.

He notes, "The existing conditions are of utmost concern," he concluded, "The slab separating the front of the building areas from the parking garage may be further damaged or may catastrophically collapse."

"It's scary but, you know, it's based on facts, it's not something I made up," Vasquez said.

Eyewitness News was unable to reach the building manager who was ccd on the report.

"When I issued this report, I knew that some people may not like this but it needs to, it needed to be done in order for them to know what may happen," Vasquez said.

There is a mountain of debris from Friday's collapse as well as Saturday's secondary collapse.

Once the garbage is removed they hope to shore up the remaining beams.

"The secondary collapse, exacerbated the problem, it cut the utilities, it cut sewer water, the electric" said Joe Mellone, a Hackensack construction official.

Amazingly, no one was killed or trapped in the underground Hackensack garage.

All pets and medicines have also been retrieved from the apartments.

Officials hope to let residents back in by midweek to get clothing and other valuables.

No word yet on when they will be allowed to move home permanently.

"You just look over and there's no driveway. Everything is up to the building. I can't imagine these people are not going to be able to get back home," said neighbor, Gallia Peretz.

Three hours after the second collapse, excavating crews hit a gas line.

More firefighters rushed to the scene.

PSE&G had to bring in heavy equipment to secure the leak.

"So we have no concerns as far as the gas leak. All the hazards as of this evening have been addressed by the fire department," Deputy Chief Pawlick said.

The secondary collapse happened just a little more than 24 hours after a glass and steel canopy fell on the underground parking garage, and flattened all three stories.

"About a tenth of what came down yesterday came down, we knew it was going come down. We tried to shore it up but gravity won again," said Deputy Chief Matt Wagner of the Hackensack Fire Department.

Neighbors heard it and they felt it.

Driving has been restricted on Prospect Street so the Peretz family, who lived in the building next door can't drive their car, but they're not staying home either.

"It's just a huge pit, can't get back in there, we're scared about structure," Peretz said.

"To think that it could fall on that building and it could fall on my house," Pascual said.

The garage is connected to a high rise apartment building, called Prospect Towers, at 300 Prospect Avenue. The garage serves the residents who live there.

Firefighters evacuated scores of elderly residents minutes after the collapse.

The garage pancaked when the canopy fell on it, damaging vehicles.

Allegra Stewart has a 2010 BMW parked there.

"I don't know what's up with my car," she said.

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.

Prospect Tower residents 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.