WILDWOOD, N.J. — It was the place Branchville Fire Chief Jon Frato had rented for years for the state’s annual “Firemen’s convention.” Three different fire companies were staying inside 222 East Baker St. in Wildwood, a different company on each level.
Frato’s people were on the second floor, in the middle. Saturday night, around dinner, Frato said he never saw the deck collapse coming.
“I have no idea how it collapsed,” Frato said in a telephone interview, recovering from a crushed ankle and some bruising on his chest. “All I know is we were sitting on it, the next thing I know we were on the ground.”
If there were signs the decks were in any sort of perilous condition, nothing gave anyone in this house, filled with North Jersey firefighters, a moment’s pause.
“I have no idea,” Frato said. "Nobody thought anything. It’s an ordinary deck.”
Twenty-two people were taken to the hospital, as the three levels of decking slowly collapsed pancake style onto one another, trapping some people and forcing others to try sliding down the edges to escape. About 10 were from Branchville. They were immediately surrounded by firefighters in the area who were able to lift the wooden decking and start helping people out of the rubble.
All but three were treated and released, including several children. The assistant chief of the Forest Grove Fire Department, who was on the bottom deck, suffered numerous broken bones including his leg, pelvis, jaw, and collarbone, according to a Facebook post by the Sussex County Fire Chiefs Association. “Sussex County wraps our arms around you and wishes you all the best for your recovery,” the association wrote.
Days later, the rubble removed, the evidence of rot along the wood that had been covered with siding was obvious. An architect took pictures and noted the rot as he considered how a renovation might proceed. A builder tasked with rebuilding the structure’s exterior paced.
The top floor roof overhang had been braced with iron beams to prevent another collapse.
“They build them quick,” said Isaac Williams, who lives across the street in a rooming house. “It was all rotted. It was like nailed in. It didn’t have a joist.”
Inside Wildwood City Hall, the original inspection records were still being located. Officials asked for an extension until mid-October for an Open Public Records Request filed by The Inquirer, saying the file was “off-site," most likely in a storage unit outside of Wildwood.
Mayor Ernie Troiano said he was concerned about the state of decks throughout the island, where the salt air accelerates rusting, moisture, and wood rot. This building was 90 years old, but had been rehabbed 15 years ago. It has seven units, owned separately, with a condo association.
“We’re going to take a look at everything,” he said. “We’re going to review all those decks. We’re sending notices out to everyone saying make sure you have your decks inspected.”
Troiano, who was at the scene Saturday night on Sept. 14, said wood rot appeared to have allowed the fasteners connecting the deck to the side of the house to become loose.
“In this environment, wood has a tendency to rot pretty quick,” he said. “When you have wood rot, you don’t have the connections to hold the decks in place.”
Days later, Troiano said the close calls and cascade of injured firefighters was still fresh in his mind. He said the most seriously injured fire chief was pinned between two decks and the concrete porch. He said the chief was alert while he was pinned, but passed out as soon as the decks were lifted off him by firefighters.
“They were talking to him when he was pinned,” Troiano said. “The minute we released him, he went unconscious.”
Troiano cautioned against drawing conclusions from photos in Google maps that appear to show crooked posts along the deck that collapsed. Driving around Wildwood, it’s not hard to find decks with similar appearances.
“As far as pulling away from the wall, you can’t see through the wood," he said. “The wood was rotted behind it, and the fasteners just let go.”
Wildwood Fire Chief Dan Speigel says his department inspects 5,000 units a year as part of the state’s Bureau of Housing Inspection’s State Local Cooperative Housing Inspection Program. But the inspections done by his crew are strictly for fire safety under the N.J. uniform fire code.
“We inspect the units themselves for working smoke alarms, means of egress, that there’s no obstruction, that people can get out safely,” Speigel said in an interview. “After that we’re pretty much out of it.”
Tammori Petty, spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the Bureau of Housing Inspection, said the state relies on municipal employees to conduct inspections of homes with multiple dwelling units. Inspections are required every five years or on a complaint basis, she said.
Petty said the inspections should address structural issues, as well as building security, occupancy, and other issues.
“Therefore, inspectors can cite if there is obvious visible evidence of a major structural issue (i.e. leaning, sagging, rotting, etc.),” she said in an email.
She said the housing inspections bureau “has not ordered any additional inspections of beach homes, including decks, in Wildwood.”
The property at 222 East Baker was actually owned by seven different owners, who formed a condominium association responsible for insurance on the building’s exterior. The various owners could not be reached for comment.
The investigation into the collapse is being conducted by the city’s construction office, she said. The city’s construction official, Rick Allen, did not return several phone messages; an employee in the office said, “The guys are always out there looking for potential hazards. It’s an ongoing thing.”
Speigel, the fire chief, said he now expects the city to initiate some kind of expanded inspection program.
“We do take construction and fire-safety issues seriously,” Speigel said.
He said the deck collapse was the most significant incident he had witnessed in his career.
“In my 28 years, we’ve never had a failure like this,” he said. “Could it be a fluke? But more attention has to be paid to decks.”
He said firefighters would not be the ones to start inspecting buildings for construction issues (though several do construction on the side, he noted). “We don’t have the education,” he said. “It’s multiple issues. You can’t just throw someone out there.”
He said he was still “flabbergasted” that no one was killed. The decks collapsed “in slow motion,” he said, allowing time for people to scramble out of the way. In addition, the visiting firefighters were there right away to extricate people.
“All the victims were removed and triaged in under an hour,” he said. “In my 28 years, we’ve never had a failure like this. One incident is a low number.”