Unified Command, Mutual Aid Key in Garage Collapse


On July 16, 2010, at 1005 hours, the Hackensack Fire Department (HFD) Communications Center simultaneously received a central station fire alarm and several telephone alarms reporting some type of collapse at 300 Prospect Avenue. A first-alarm assignment of three engines, one ladder, and one rescue (15 members) was dispatched under the command of Deputy Chief Kenneth Kalman.

On arrival (1006 hours), Kalman observed that a grade-level area approximately 200 feet × 75 feet on the B side of the structure had collapsed about 30 feet below grade level. The collapse pile was a two-story, below-grade parking area that surrounded this structure. The structure itself is an 18-story high-rise 230- × 70-foot Class 1 (fire resistive) building and is one of the many residential high-rises along this avenue. The underground garage entrance, which is the C side of the building, interconnects to 310 Prospect Avenue. This building is directly behind 300 Prospect; they share a common driveway. This residential structure, which also fronts onto 3rd Street, is a six-story building consisting of a fire resistive garage “pedestal” topped with multiple wood-frame floors that runs a block long.


A large cloud of dust was present directly in the front of the 300 Prospect entrance (B side) and compromised access to the main entrance to this building. Command started operations according to the department’s Rescue/Collapse Procedures. He requested a recall of the department’s special operations members; it took them about one hour to respond. The remaining city engine company was relocated to fire headquarters for citywide coverage; it was augmented by prearranged fire mutual-aid companies.

(1) View of the general initial collapse area. (Photos by Ron Jeffers.)

Engine 1 was assigned to take a hydrant and stretch a precautionary 2½-inch line for fire protection and to supply the building’s fire department connection (FDC); Engine 2 was designated as the rapid intervention company (RIC); and Engine 4, Ladder 1, and Rescue 1 were assigned to conduct a reconnaissance of the collapse pile, checking for surface victims and limitedly searching voids.

The building utilities were shut down in the parking garage area not affected by the collapse. The aerial on Ladder 1 was raised to serve as an observation platform. Companies began to evacuate the high-rise multiple dwelling. Many occupants needed assistance. The Hackensack Police Department (HPD) secured the perimeter and stopped traffic in the area to limit any vibrations that might cause another collapse. A command post was established in the street just north of the structure.


Deputy Chief of Operations Matthew Wagner arrived shortly thereafter and was briefed on actions and conditions. Command was transferred from Kalman to Wagner; Kalman then assumed responsibility for the Operations Section and further assessed the collapse pile. He found a major pancake collapse of two levels of the parking deck, which was attached to the cellar and subcellar levels of the high-rise structure. (In a pancake collapse, a floor section falls down on the floor or floors below in a flat, pancake-like configuration. When the floor beams pull loose or collapse at both ends, a pancake collapse occurs.1 This type of collapse can be caused by shock or the impact of heavy falling objects.)

(2) View of the collapse area, looking east. Note the trees and vegetation involved in the collapse. The area in the foreground was the site of the secondary collapse.

To complicate matters further, several areas of the top-level parking deck (exterior) were enveloped with several feet of topsoil, shrubbery, and trees. This locale served as a garden section for the main building entrance. Kalman conferred with the incident commander (IC). Command ordered a full New Jersey Urban Area Security Initiative (NJ/UASI) response, assistance from Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) New Jersey Task Force 1 (TF1), and a full recall of HFD personnel. There were several reports of civilians unaccounted for and people who may have been in the collapse pile. Search dogs were also requested through TF1.

A Unified Command (UC) structure was set up, using the National Incident Management System (NIMS) national framework. As more HFD members and companies arrived, the main focus was on evacuating and conducting a preliminary search of all residential high-rise apartments and common areas. A search and evacuation group was formed and operated under the supervision of an HFD officer. The command post (CP) tracked civilian accountability.


The Paterson and North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue (NHRF&R) NJ/UASI units arrived and were assigned to operate with HFD Rescue 1. Deputy Chief Lathey Wirkus (Elizabeth Fire Department) was designated NJ/UASI staging officer and Battalion Chief Brian McDermott (Paterson Fire Department) NJ/UASI operations officer. All NJ/UASI rescue units were on scene within one hour of the time they were requested. The NJ/UASI rescue units brought with them struts, shoring, and concrete-breaching equipment. The HFD special operations support truck supplied some lumber; additional lumber was requested from a local vendor. The initial strategy of the NJ/UASI units was to shore up the adjacent areas of the parking garage so that additional searches could be conducted. During the search of void areas, two crushed vehicles were observed; they did not appear to be in parking spaces. One vehicle had the four-way flashers turned on. A cutting station was set up in the street on the A side of the structure. Heavy timber shoring was cut and lowered down a nearby shaftway to the lower level of the garage. A transit was set up to monitor the collapse area. Teamwork among the NJ/UASI teams was excellent, and the HFD provided additional personnel for support operations.

(3) Operations at the shoring cutting station.


At this time, the HFD command structure incorporated all department deputy chiefs, who were given assignments such as sector command, safety officer, and so on. The NJ/UASI and TF1, which employed their own accountability systems, safety officers, and sectors, were all working under the NIMS system with other various agencies.

A personnel accountability report (PAR) was conducted at regular intervals for all staff. A deputy chief was also assigned to cover the city for additional alarms. A rehab sector was established in the lobby of a high-rise multiple dwelling two buildings away; it was augmented by a regional fire department canteen unit. This enabled members to cool off in an air-conditioned area. An HFD member was designated rehab officer.

Separate emergency medical services (EMS) branches were established for firefighters and civilians. The EMS branch for residents was in the lobby of 280 Prospect Avenue, south of the collapse pile. Several civilians were treated for medical conditions during the evacuation by stairs. Elevators were rendered useless because of their proximity to the collapse area. HPD and building management personnel expanded their occupant accountability to include the occupants of 310 Prospect, who share the same parking garage.

Off-duty Deputy Chief Andy Pawlick, also a TF1 member, was connected to the TF1 leaders and communicating with Prospect Avenue Command while en route relative to the TF1 deployments. Pawlick was assigned as a liaison officer between HFD command and TF1; he was instrumental in expediting the response and TF1 operations. The normal TF1 deployment time is four hours.


NJ/USAR TF1 began to arrive at approximately 1410 hours. Search and shoring operations were transferred from the NJ/UASI units to TF1. The NJ/UASI units were sent to rehab; all units except the HFD-UASI unit (some members of the HFD are also members of NJ/UASI) were subsequently released from the scene. TF1 conducted additional searches using cadaver dogs on top of the collapse pile, completed additional shoring, and used a robot and search cameras to examine void areas and inside several vehicles.

UC, along with TF1 personnel and city officials, agreed to set up a base camp for TF1 operations at the high school, approximately four blocks from the scene. The HFD mini-bus transported TF1 members to and from the incident. A NJ Transit bus augmented this operation; the bus was initially requested for use as a cooling area for rescuers. Resident accountability was an ongoing process, as some residents were still unaccounted for.

(4) A TF1 member and a dog search the collapse area.

TF1’s involvement enabled all HFD members assigned to the box to return to headquarters for rest and to go back in service for city duty. At this time, all fire mutual-aid cover units were released. The HFD continued to operate at the scene with primarily recalled members, an engine, a ladder, a rescue, and special units to support TF1 staff.

The rehab area was reinforced with food, additional ice, and portable toilets; workers were rotated through rehab at regular intervals. Large excavators were brought in under a prearranged agreement with TF1. Local engineers operated them. TF1 continued to use search dogs and cameras, but no “hits” had been made by the dogs up to this time. TF1 staff engineers were on scene and monitored and assessed structural stability. There were concerns regarding the vertical columns of the attached 18-story high-rise building.

The heavy equipment began the delayering and removing debris to uncover the vehicles buried below grade. Portable ground ladders had been extended and lowered into the collapse pile for firefighter access and egress. TF1 members began breaching and breaking operations to assist in gaining access to the vehicles so search cameras could be lowered into the crushed vehicles. HFD-NJ/UASI members operated as a RIC for TF1 personnel and stood ready with the precautionary hoseline while cutting torches were used to cut rebar. As nightfall approached, operations inside the parking garage ceased. Efforts were concentrated on access from the top. The New Jersey Department of Transportation provided light towers.

Heavy equipment continued to operate throughout the night to remove debris and to continue breaking and breaching operations. TF1 search dogs also continued operating; search results continued to prove negative. Around midnight, an excavator apparently struck a “posttensioned” steel cable, causing the remaining top level of the parking deck (west end) to gradually drop about 14 inches. TF1 engineers, noting this, withdrew all members from that area.

At 0100 hours (July 17), 10 occupants remained unaccounted for.

While search operations continued throughout the early morning hours, a joint meeting was held among UC, TF1 officials, and the Hackensack Building Department. TF1 Chief James Riley reported that TF1 was concluding its operations at this time, citing that all searches were negative up to this time and that the continual operation of search dogs indicated no “hits.” He noted that the likelihood of anyone’s still being trapped and alive was extremely slim. Also, only three occupants were unaccounted for at this time, and there were no additional confirmed reports of missing or trapped occupants.

TF1 officials recommended to UC that it continue to operate with the heavy equipment to delayer debris and make additional searches from the top of the debris pile while avoiding a free-standing wall at the east end of the collapse and the unstable remaining parking deck at the west end, even though those areas had been shored up. Safety zones were set up in these areas. The IC called three NJ/UASI units back to the scene to work with HFD and NJ/UASI members to continue operations; one of the units was to operate in a RIC capacity. Also, accountability was established for any worker who entered the building. Building management retained the heavy equipment that was previously operating to continue removing debris under HFD supervision. All debris and vehicles removed were brought to a county-owned lot about one-and-a-half miles away. Each dump truck had a police escort.


A major secondary collapse occurred on July 17 at 1426 hours. It involved an area approximately 75 feet × 75 feet of the below-grade garage levels that had previously been shored up with a combination of struts and lumber. This collapse destroyed dozens of struts belonging to the NJ/UASI units. Command transmitted an evacuation order/signal for responders, and a PAR was immediately taken. No fire department members or construction workers operating in this immediate area were injured. This secondary collapse severed an eight-inch water line that supplied the fire protection systems and domestic water; sewer waste lines; and the electrical service feed into the building.

The electrical disconnect caused a pad-mount transformer to fall into the collapse pile, resulting in a major arc. The falling transformer caused several small fires involving mulch around the transformer and the utility pole. The electric and gas utility companies were called back to the scene.

(5) The below-grade levels on the west end, the secondary collapse area.

At the same time, major flooding was occurring inside of 310 Prospect. This building was interconnected to the underground parking garage on Side C. Two additional fire companies were dispatched to that situation. At this time, Command ordered all recovery operations to cease until building and city engineers devised a safe operating plan. All NJ/UASI units, including HFD members, were released at this time.

After the utilities were secured and the small fires were extinguished, HFD members entered 300 Prospect to check the electrical room for signs of fire and to shut down the emergency generator.

Operations Downgraded

At this point, the HFD downgraded operations to a reserve engine company consisting of one officer and four firefighters to stand watch over the collapse pile and building. The secondary collapse rendered the building’s standpipe system completely out of service. A contingency fire suppression plan was put in place. It consisted of stretching a feeder line to an upper floor, using all available personnel, before any further operations would commence. The HPD also maintained units on scene for perimeter control, including keeping the street closed to minimize any vibrations.

Gas Main Struck; “Stop Work” Order

At 1817 hours, a contractor, operating a large back hoe to remove topsoil from a remaining portion of the parking deck to alleviate the additional weight load, struck a three-inch gas main, rupturing the line to 300 Prospect. The gas company had initially reported that 300 Prospect did not have gas service, which proved true; however, the line was laid in place before the building’s construction and was capped before it entered the building. A first-alarm assignment was called back to the scene; a precautionary hoseline was stretched. The adjoining buildings were metered and monitored for gas before the local gas company stopped the leak. Since there was no shutoff valve in place, the street had to be dug up to contain the leak. At this time, the city’s Building Department issued a “stop work” order until further assessment was done and a coordinated plan was put in place.

Secondary Building Search

During this gas emergency, HFD members observed an occupant leaving the D side entrance to 300 Prospect with suitcases in hand. The police questioned him; he told them that he never left the building after the initial collapse had occurred. It was thought that he might have eluded the police and somehow reentered the structure. Because of this event, the HFD conducted an additional secondary search. The building management provided keys to all apartments. The fire department teams were accompanied by Bergen County Sheriff’s Office personnel during the search. No additional occupants were found, but several pet birds and cats were removed and turned over to their owners by building management. Fire department members were instructed not to wear their bunker gear for this operation, to minimize fatigue, and to bring additional flashlights since there was no power to the building, the elevators were not working, and nightfall had begun. After the additional search was completed, operations were once again downgraded to the single reserve engine company to maintain watch.


On Monday, July 19, construction personnel under the direction of the city’s Building Department engineers began major shoring operations for the remainder of the parking garage and of the retaining wall surrounding the collapse. Strict safety and accountability rules were set in place for all workers. The goal was to make the building safe so the occupants could be escorted into the structure to remove belongings. By Thursday, July 22, the standpipe and sprinkler systems were temporarily repaired as a dry system, a temporary FDC had been erected, and damaged piping was repaired. The HFD tested the standpipe and found that it operated satisfactorily. A temporary electrical service was provided by way of a large generator placed in the street to power elevators and select lighting.

On Friday, July 23, building management escorted occupants into 300 Prospect, following strict accountability procedures.

On the morning of Saturday, July 24, a smoke condition in the building was reported to the standby engine company. Additional fire companies were requested, and hoselines were stretched to supply the temporary FDC. The cause of the alarm was smoke from a defective elevator motor.

The HFD maintained a presence at the site, monitoring the additional removal of debris and crushed vehicles. Before a vehicle was moved off-site, Bergen County Sheriff’s Office cadaver dogs checked it, and it was marked, logged, and transported to a secured location.

At 2000 hours on August 18, 31 days after the initial response, the HFD terminated Prospect Avenue Command. At the time this was written, the department was continuing to monitor conditions, operations, and the removal of vehicles on a daily basis. The 300 Prospect Avenue high-rise building remains unoccupied. Tenants are expected to return to their apartments tentatively sometime this month.


  • Anticipate a secondary collapse early in the operation. If the severity of the secondary collapse in this incident had been anticipated earlier, an alternate plan for operating in that area would have been devised and would have been ready for immediate implementation. Also, utilities in that area should have been disconnected. Recommend securing any utilities in a suspect area, particularly when the collapse zone serves more than one structure. Also, don’t rely on struts to provide absolute protection against collapse. You will have to calculate the exact number of struts needed for the weight involved.
  • A large mobile command vehicle should have been brought to the scene for the HFD command staff. Operations of this duration necessitate that the command staff have a quiet, secure, and comfortable area in which to operate and communicate. Although the HFD command vehicle was adjacent to an air-conditioned tent, a large enclosed command vehicle would have been more beneficial to overall operations for at least 24 hours.
  • Although the HPD did a very good job in providing scene security regarding civilians, many nonfire government agencies self-dispatched to this incident. “Perimeter” control should have included outside agencies reporting to the CP. They were a distraction to communications and the IC, and nonfire task force personnel had to be removed from the area of operations surrounding the collapse zone frequently.
  • PARs were conducted at regular intervals. Their results were reported to UC and to headquarters by the main radio channel for documentation purposes.
  • Collapse incidents are not frequent. Have a plan ready. Attend specialized training classes. Know whom to call for assistance. The department followed its standard operating guidelines for collapse operations on arrival. This set the groundwork for smooth overall operations. Chief officers had recently attended a class on “Command Considerations for Building Collapse.” Our department’s involvement in the NJ/UASI program proved invaluable, as more than 40 department members received training for advanced collapse operations. The NJ/UASI program allowed specialized equipment to be readily available to the city with the automatic mutual-aid response of NJ/UASI rescue companies. Also, having department members serve as part of TF1 allowed for smooth interaction between the HFD and TF1 and made HFD chief officers well aware of TF1’s capabilities.
  • Maintain safety as a priority. With more than 200 personnel operating at the height of the incident and with temperatures in the 90s, only one minor back injury was sustained. Rotate personnel frequently, and evaluate the level of personal protective equipment required for the type of incident. Having a rehab area two buildings away allowed the members to totally detach from the operations while rehabilitating.
  • The public information officer position was established as part of the command staff. A heavy media presence was on scene for several days, and conflicting reports regarding trapped occupants were obtained by the media/press. Make sure reports are accurate, and be aware that area residents rely on reports concerning relatives and access to their neighborhood. Several hundred people occupied this building; many were at work, and several tenants were on vacation or away on business when the collapse occurred. The management company with nearby offices was a big help in providing tenant information and relocating occupants.
  • While conducting apartment searches in large structures, mark dwelling unit doors when each stage of search (primary/secondary) is complete. There was some confusion regarding which apartments had been searched.


1. Dunn, Vincent. Collapse of Burning Buildings. Fire Engineering, 1988.

STEPHEN KALMANis a 23-year veteran of the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department, where he is the deputy chief of training. Previously, he was assigned as a tour commander and was an engine company officer for 13 years. He is also a level-II NJ state-certified fire instructor and teaches at the Bergen County Fire Academy. He also served as a volunteer firefighter for 22 years.

The Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department

The Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department (HFD) consists of 99 uniformed members, who protect approximately 45,000 residents within a 4.5-square-mile area in northern New Jersey. The population increases to an estimated 120,000 people during weekdays. The department operates four engine companies, one ladder company, and one rescue company under the command of a deputy chief (tour commander.) An engine, a ladder, and a rescue—staffed by off-duty personnel—are kept in reserve status during fires, storms, and emergencies to provide city coverage and additional units for incidents. The department operates other special units on an as-needed basis. Department members are issued alphanumeric-type recall pagers.

The department is also part of the specialized Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) group, formed about six years ago to protect the area’s bridge and tunnel infrastructure from terrorist attacks. The UASI features standardized training and equipment, including rescue vehicles, and specializes in collapse rescue, high-angle rescue, and confined-space rescue. Members assigned must undergo weeks of intensive training in the above fields, administered by New Jersey USAR Task Force 1 (NJ-TF1). The group is comprised of the following New Jersey fire departments: Bayonne, Elizabeth, Hackensack, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue, Millburn, Morristown, and Paterson, as well as the Port Authority of New Jersey & New York Police. More than 40 members have undergone the UASI training. Five HFD members are also part of NJ-TF1. The HFD is also part of the Mid-Bergen Fire Mutual-Aid group.

The Hackensack High-Rise Parking Lot Collapse: NJ/USAR Technical Rescue Operations—Command Liaison


While responding off-duty to the Hackensack high-rise parking garage collapse, I advised Hackensack Fire Department (HFD) Deputy Chief Fred Longobardi to have Prospect Avenue Incident Command request New Jersey State USAR Task Force 1 (TF1) for its search/rescue and canine search assets. As I was pulling into HFD headquarters, Longobardi suggested that I report to the command post (CP). On arrival at the scene, a “Situation Awareness” report by Incident Commander (IC) Matt Wagner and District Commander Kenneth Kalman was in progress. It related to ongoing search/rescue operations, including TF1 response and Unified Command (UC) coordination. The IC assigned me as the liaison to TF1.

TF1 Leader Chief Tom McNamara [Elizabeth Fire Department] and I made our way to the rear of 300 Prospect Avenue, down the stairs to Subdivision 3, and toward the collapse pile. At the lowest level in the collapse zone, TF1 Search Team Manager Rescue Captain Vic Petrucelli (Jersey City Fire Department) was overseeing the NJ/UASI teams and informed us that the technical rescue units were shoring and cribbing a collapsed section. The teams were using struts and cribbing to stabilize the concrete decking that had collapsed and the sagging remains of the parking decking to safely access and perform a primary search of the two or three vehicles crushed in the rubble.

After sizing up, we reported our findings to the IC, for a situational update. Based on our observations, we had to address the following concerns and devise tactical procedures for the ongoing operations and the catastrophic collapse:

1. The potential for a secondary collapse.
2. A continued search for potential victims.
3. Rotating the NJ/UASI teams out and holding them in reserve.
4. The TF1’s assuming all technical rescue operations under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework.

To ensure the safety of the members operating, we shortened operations so responders could go to rehab; the excessive heat and humidity affected the initial NJ/UASI units. TF1 would assume all technical rescue operations under the NIMS framework. The TF1 teams would support the local and state responders’ efforts to locate and manage search and recovery operations. NJ/UASI Deputy Chief Lathey Wirkus and Battalion Chief Brian McDermott were also updated on the incident action plan (IAP). Throughout this incident, communication was maintained with UC, TF1, and the NJ/UASI groups.

Based on UC reports and the most reliable information available, TF1 Chief Jim Riley requested a full team response, which included the team on-call plus the two additional teams and all available members and support resources. TF1 also requested a rehab and support location. The nearby high school was selected as a base of operations; incoming TF1 members were told to report there.

On TF1’s arrival on the scene, and after a briefing with the Hackensack IC, TF1 began its technical rescue operation size-up, which included a survey of all ongoing operations, an IAP for its actions, and staging for team resources/cache. TF1 quickly put the team assets to work. TF1 Leader Gene Walsh, assigned to the IAP Planning Team on scene, was to start tracking the accountability of team members arriving and to stage a team forward Operations Command section just inside the parking garage at 310 Prospect Avenue (a safe area of operations).


In the transition phase, TF1 started to change over the NJ/UASI members and replaced them with TF1 search team managers and rescue specialists. I was assigned to the below-grade TF1 Subdivision 3 operations to maintain communication and continue giving progress reports and resource requests to Command. NJ/UASI’s McDermott, the subdivision task force leader at this time, advised that at least four UASI response teams would rotate through rehab and be held in reserve on the scene. TF1 teams would be rotated through at two- or three-hour intervals.

TF1 members began a large shoring and cribbing operation to access three pinned vehicles. After some difficult operations, they were able to reach the vehicles but, because of the nature of the collapse, they could not get an interior visual of the primary vehicle without causing additional stability issues or possibly additional collapse. These vehicles were completely crushed in a pancake-style collapse.

At this point, TF1 Leader Walsh and the rescue team managers decided that all further operations would have to be relocated to the top of the collapse pile and the rescue specialist would have to use breaking and breaching operations to gain access to crushed vehicles to locate any victims. TF1 apparatus and equipment/cache that were staging on 3rd Street were relocated to Prospect Avenue. The TF1 logistics specialist section began setting up a forward tool cache for extended operations. The N.J. Department of Transportation representative arrived and set up four light towers for nighttime operations.


Prior to and during all operations, TF1 structure specialist engineers were monitoring and evaluating structural stability, life safety, and other conditions (stability) affecting the rescue and recovery operations. Structure Specialist Al Brenner advised TF1 Chief Riley on conditions. Based on the technical information feedback, Riley advised and updated UC on current operations.

Private contractors, with the assistance of the TF1 logistics support specialist, structural engineers, and TF1 team member Bill Byrnes, brought heavy equipment to the scene. The TF1 Planning Section formulated an IAP that incorporated the use of heavy equipment to assist the TF1 team in delayering the debris pile to expose vehicles for search and potential rescue.

The TF1 team halted operations and had all members report to the staging area in the parking garage for a personnel accountability report (PAR), briefing , and to split the team into shifts for continuous operations. An HFD bus and TF1 vehicles transported team members back and forth to the high school.


TF1 canine search specialists with K-9 and cadaver dogs made several searches in an effort to pinpoint possible victims. TF1 Search Team Leader Jim Bastan used all team search components, including a robot, to attempt to locate potential victims. All voids were searched using search cameras. TF1 team dogs were used to attempt to locate victims in the collapse pile numerous times during the operation and throughout the night. All searches by K-9 assets were negative. An “all quiet” was called so responders could hear cell phones ringing or trapped victims knocking.


The operations continued throughout the night and into the morning; all TF1 components, HFD members, and support resources were employed. The delayering of the collapse pile continued; two surface vehicles were removed by machine, placed on a flatbed tow truck, and moved to an off-site secured location. The cars were marked “1” and “2.” The tops of other vehicles were located. Breaching and breaking operations were used to access vehicles and search interiors for potential victims. During operations, a TF1 structure specialist was concerned about the potential for a secondary collapse on the west end of the driveway. The surrounding area and soil had dropped 14 inches, and the columns had started to break through the concrete. He stopped all operations on the west end of the collapse. It was determined that it was unsafe to attempt to access the vehicles in that area; they had to be moved with heavy equipment. The canine search specialist searched the cars, which proved negative for victims.

At daybreak after extended operations and numerous searches, TF1 leaders had determined that the chances of finding any victims or potential victims were very low and that the local fire department should continue operations. They suggested that heavy equipment be used to continue the delayering of the collapse pile and remove the vehicles out of the collapse area.

A debriefing was scheduled for 0600 hours with UC and TF1 leaders to discuss further operations. UC was debriefed on all operations and the potential for additional collapse, was advised of all searches, and was given several recommendations in relation to the recovery operations. The Building Department was also updated on conditions. The machinery now operating on scene was part of the TF1 cache. UC was advised that it would have to secure other machinery for further operations to continue with the delayering operation. On completion of the debriefing, TF1 began demobilizing and releasing team components.

On Saturday (July 17), I was recalled to relieve Deputy Stephen Kalman. I assumed command of Prospect Avenue. Kalman advised that we needed to conduct a secondary search of 300 Prospect Avenue. On-scene HFD companies and Bergen County Sheriff’s Office personnel conducted the search; property management provided keys to all the apartments. It was also requested that any pets be removed if possible. Companies searched all common areas, floors, and apartments and removed several cats and birds with the assistance of building management. All searches for occupants were negative. Companies were given a rehab station on the ninth floor; all members rehabbed and continued operations until they were completed.

ANDREW PAWLICK is a deputy chief and 23-year veteran of the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department. He is assigned as the 3rd Platoon tour commander and deputy in charge of department apparatus and equipment; he is also responsible for purchasing and maintaining equipment caches for fire suppression and special operations units. He is logistics manager and logistical support for the New Jersey State Urban Search and Rescue team and New Jersey Urban Area Security Initiative (NJ/UASI) training.

Hackensack High-Rise Garage Collapse: An IC’s Perspective


On arrival, Deputy Chief Kenneth Kalman and I jointly commanded the incident until more Unified Command (UC) support staff arrived. Because of the incident’s magnitude, many public agencies heard the local radio communications. The Bergen County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was notified; it would help with the logistical support that would be needed for this long-term incident. This brought to the scene many agencies our department does not deal with on a daily basis. For example, New Jersey Task Force 1 (NJ-TF1) support includes a liaison with the State Police, the Governor’s Office, and the State Emergency Command Center. This turned into many face-to-face requests for various pieces of equipment and supplies. Once we were established and developed an incident action plan (IAP), all units and requests were made through UC with assistance from the County OEM.

The department’s initial response companies (a ladder, three engines, and one rescue) were divided into search and evacuation groups for the primary search and assigned as follows:

  • Rescue 1 and Engine 4: collapse pile for recon and to perform a surface victim search.
  • Ladder 1 and Engines 1 and 2: evacuating residents from the building.

At this time, the firefighters did not force any apartment doors; they went to every apartment and rang the doorbell or knocked on the door, advising the occupants to immediately leave under their escort. Many elderly and disabled occupants had to be carried down the staircase in a secure chair. The designated evacuation stairwell was on Side D, remotely away from the collapse pile. All evacuees were taken to the lobby at 280 Prospect Avenue for medical evaluations and patient tracking.

An engine (5) was staged at headquarters for citywide duty. We recalled a department truck and an engine company and requested mutual-aid companies from Teaneck, Bogota, and Ridgefield Park, also to be staged at headquarters. The NJ/Urban Area Security Initiative (NJ/UASI) Task Force was notified of the situation.

Deputy Chief Kenneth Kalman was sent to recon the collapse pile so that he could give the IC an accurate picture of the incident and account for the units operating within the collapsed structure area. After he reported back to the command post (CP), a full NJ/UASI response was requested (10 northern New Jersey rescue companies with capabilities to further support a collapse incident) and a NJ/USAR Task Force-1 (TF1) response for the cadaver dogs. A full department general alarm was sounded for personnel. This was to be a prolonged operation. A short time into the incident, we requested a full TF1 team response.


The high-rise building at 300 Prospect Avenue, the collapse site, is an 18-story residential fire resistive structure with a main level and two sublevels below grade for parking (see Figure 1). The parking area encircles the exterior of the structure on Side B. The parking garage layout is as follows: One of the parking levels is under the building; the driving ramp is in the center of the below-grade area; and additional parking spaces surround the exterior high-rise structure walls. The parking garage entrance is off Prospect Avenue. This entry also serves as a garage entrance into the high-rise building at 310 Prospect Avenue and is a ramp common to both buildings. The below-grade parking garage was a posttensioned construction deck; it suffered complete structural failure, which caused a pancake collapse, forming an approximately 200- × 75-foot collapse pile.

Figure 1. The collapse site was sectored into the following areas: Side A was Prospect Avenue. Side B included the exterior top level of the underground garage, the main lobby entrance with an extended canopy over the driveway; a large area of soil with plants and trees; and the garage access road to the rear of the building. Side C included the rear garage access area, the pool area, and a common garage ramp to an attached mid-rise parking deck of similar construction and a mid-rise residential building. Side D consisted of the main level garage deck along with lower parking level 1/Subdivision 1, which was changed to Subdivision 1 for National Incident Management System (NIMS) operations, and lower parking level 2/Subdivision 2.


The CP was relocated across the street into an inflatable air-condition-controlled tent because of the excessive heat and high-humidity conditions and the potential for an approaching stormy weather pattern.


During the initial collapse stages, the CP was receiving reports from Engine 4 advising that a wife reported that her husband had just left the apartment five minutes before the parking garage collapse and was probably in the garage (parking spot #152) during the collapse. Later into the operation, we received information about a family of four that was supposedly leaving around the time of the collapse in a white car. The caller said she could not make contact with this family.

During the recon, two vehicles were located in the collapse pile on or near the ramp; both cars had their lights or warning signals on. The cars became the focal point during the search operations. The white vehicle was located on Subdivision 2; the limited visibility prevented us from determining if the vehicle was occupied.

The second vehicle, a black Mercedes, was located on Subdivision 1. The search team was able to get only the license plate. The Hackensack Police Department (HPD) ran a plate check; the car was traced to a business. The HPD contacted the owner, who said he was out of the country on business. He added that his wife had the vehicle and that he was not able to contact her. The HPD was also in the process of reviewing the surveillance cameras to see if any vehicles were moving at the time of impact. UC also received reports from the search team indicating that they thought they saw someone in the vehicle on Subdivision 1. The IAP was developed with these critical reports as its basis.

UASI rescues stage on the west side of Prospect Avenue. (Photo by Matthew Musicant.)

Members of NJ/UASI were assigned on their arrival. Deputy Chief Lathey Wirkus (Elizabeth Fire Department) was staging officer for the responding rescue team, which were staged at Prospect Avenue near Passaic Street. Battalion Chief Brian McDermott was assigned as special operations officer. HFD-NJ/UASI Charles Grieco was Sector Commander for Subdivision 1. Chief Tom McNamara (Elizabeth Fire Department) and Captain Jon Prachthauser (Morristown Fire Department) were assigned safety.

The HFD-NJ/UASI-TF1 groups shored and cribbed the concrete decking collapse and the sagging decking on Subdivisions 1 and 2 so that responders could get a better view of the trapped vehicles. All NJ/UASI departments used their struts and heavy equipment. The Elizabeth UASI rescue team supplied lumber; additional lumber was ordered from a nearby lumberyard.

As additional NJ/UASI and TF1 squads arrived, the HFD and NJ/UASI crews began transitioning the scene to TF1. The HFD and NJ/UASI teams became support groups. TF1 called private excavator contractors to the scene through a prearranged agreement. These contractors provided heavy machinery for delayering the collapse pile. With each delayering, TF1 ran rescue and cadaver dogs through the pile. The dogs passed through several times but made no hits. TF1 also began breaking and breaching operations from the top of the collapse pile to get access to several vehicles and voids. No victims were recovered.

At approximately 2300 hours (11 hours since operations began), while heavy machinery was removing debris, a posttensioned cord was struck and snapped, causing the west end of the collapse pile, which had been shored earlier in the day, to settle. The evacuation signal (three blasts on the apparatus air horn) was sounded, and a personnel accountability report (PAR) of all members was taken. TF1 engineers cordoned off the west area as an unsafe pile. This unsafe zone had been searched and shored earlier in the operation. There were no victims. TF1 continued its operation, with updates to UC, throughout the night.

From the start of this operation, UC requested that property management contact the building tenants to assist with accountability and to liaison with UC. The HPD was also using background checks and flight lists and running plates to get information on missing occupants. At approximately 0100 hours on July 18, 10 people in 310 Prospect and one person in 300 Prospect were not accounted for. TF1 called for a meeting with UC at 0600 hours, at which time TF1 was told that only three occupants were unaccounted for.

TF1 Chief Jim Riley told UC considering that all the searches by his rescuers and the dogs were negative, he felt comfortable that no one was in the collapse pile. He explained that the probability of finding a survivor or a fatality was low because the K-9 and cadaver dogs did not pick up a scent and rescuers visually inspected all accessible void spaces. Although there were concerns about the occupants who were still missing, the rescuers realized that the operation had entered the recovery mode and TF-1 will be demobilizing.

The NJ/UASI team would continue to remove debris so that the vehicles could be accounted for; Bergen County would run its cadaver dogs through the site. UC was told to stay clear of the west-end collapse pile because it was going to cave in. At this time, TF1 began to demobilize.

Three NJ/UASI units rotated into Hackensack. One squad would serve as the RIC; the other two would rotate working. This operation began at 1130 hours on July 18 (25 hours into operations). Hackensack squads were to strap up debris for removal by the heavy machinery. Because of the hazards, a 35-foot ladder was placed on the north wall for egress. Only two members were allowed to go into the debris pile to strap up equipment. They then had to go to a place of refuge before the machinery would lift any debris.

During the next operational phase, the construction companies retained by property management continued to shore and remove debris. UC and structural engineers emphasized that they were not to enter the secondary collapse pile and that safe zones had been established. The Paterson and Elizabeth NJ/UASI rescue companies began removing debris.

A Bergen County cadaver dog was also recalled. During this operation, a secondary collapse occurred at 1426 hours (30 hours into operations). This collapse severed the sewer, domestic water, and electrical services. The electrical transformer fell into the collapse pile, causing an arc that started a mulch and pole fire.

Evacuation tones were again sounded to order everyone off the site. A PAR was taken of the HFD-NJ/UASI teams and construction workers. The utility companies and Hackensack’s structural engineer were recalled. All recovery efforts were stopped, and NJ/UASI teams were released until the structural engineers could come up with a safe operating plan. UC ordered the evacuation of the 310 Prospect Avenue building office because of its proximity to the garage decking. The local gas and electric utility companies checked the electrical room for fire and shut down the generator, which turned on after the power was lost. After the secondary collapse, UC determined that the HFD would maintain this site in an active recovery mode with an engine company remaining on the scene.

At 1800 hours (35 hours into the operation), UC was transferred to Deputy Chief Stephen Kalman. During this operating period, the structural engineers for property management decided to remove the soil that was still on the garage deck that had not yet collapsed. This section of the garage was on Side A. At 1817 hours, an excavator struck a three-inch stubbed gas line that was never marked out, causing a large gas leak. The area was monitored until the gas line was secured. A secondary search of 300 Prospect Avenue had to be conducted because UC saw a tenant walk out of his apartment with luggage.

The Bergen County Animal Shelter responded to assist with rescued animals but, instead, the several cats and birds recovered were brought to 310 Prospect Avenue, where their owners claimed them. At this point, the Building Department issued a stop-work order for the site.

On July 21, (five days into the operation), UC assigned the Bergen County cadaver dog to search the collapse material debris field at 21 East Kansas Street to check for any scents. This site checked clear, and the contractor was told he could remove the debris from the site, which no longer needed a police presence.

The cadaver dog was recalled to the collapse site on July 29 to run through the entire area. The dog was able to check each subdivision parking area and enter voids. The police handler was confident there were no bodies after this length of time. The cadaver dog was called back to check each recovered vehicle after the fire department checked it.


To decrease the number of people at the CP, UC asked the police, EMS, and county coordinators to leave one liaison at the CP. UC later established time lines for debriefing sessions at 316 Prospect Avenue. Fire, police, emergency management, city department heads, officials, and other concerned parties attended the first of several debriefings. On July 18, UC had additional engineers meet with city officials to discuss additional 12-hour IAPs, update information on missing persons, occupant accountability, medication and pets, relocating the occupants, securing the site from occupants, and releasing media information. Structural engineers updated information on columns, debris removal, a location for dumping the debris, and securing that site. Media debriefings were scheduled to take place after each department head debriefing at a designated press conference location.

In the debriefings, the public information officer learned what information he should release to the media. The debriefings and the issuing of press releases were continued daily to keep all city officials, construction workers, engineers, and property management working on the same goals. The department head debriefings were important for maintaining control of the scene and keeping the IAPs operating smoothly. It became noticeable when revisions in the IAP and other information were not passed down in a timely fashion.


The extremely high temperature created the need for immediate medical rehab and shelter. Two medical sectors were established—one for civilians and one for rescue personnel. Basic life support (BLS) staging for civilians was at the corner of Prospect and Berry; staging for rescuers was near Prospect and Golf, facing the Hackensack University Medical Center, which was notified to prepare for possible victims. The 321 Prospect Avenue building was used as Medical Command; a hospital liaison was staged at the CP.

An additional medical area for the evacuated occupants was set up in the lobby of 280 Prospect Avenue for victim tracking. It was staffed with a medical doctor, because we were receiving many occupant requests to retrieve medications from the building. The doctor evaluated medication priorities on a case-by-case basis. A property management representative was also at the location to track residents. Occupants were not allowed to enter the building until the heavy machinery was stopped.

There was one minor back injury (strain) for the HFD; this individual returned to work for his next tour.

The buildings at 326 and 316 Prospect Avenue were used for rescuer rehab. We had requested two New Jersey Transit buses for rehab and to transport displaced residents. Box 54 Canteen and the Salvation Army provided food and assisted with rehab. The County OEM requested portable tents and air-conditioning blowers for the CP. If needed, the Civic Center and the Middle School were available to house the residents.


Personnel were critical to the success of the operation. Initial responders were used for everything from surface search, building search, and evacuation to fire suppression and recon. As multiple agencies arrived, UC reassigned TF1 members to key positions. Squads were developed to assist TF1 and NJ/UASI, which was easier to control than companies. As the incident went on and initial responders left the scene, we continued to assign squads and squad leaders. The staging and rotation of NJ/UASI groups went very well; they needed to be close to the scene for their equipment. However, as these companies were being released, they couldn’t immediately leave the scene; they were blocked in. TF1 needed a home base; the high school was used and accommodated incoming resources. The NJ Transit buses and an HFD bus shuttled members operating at the scene. The designated entry point into the site for the heavy equipment was from South Prospect or off Golf Place. This was important when the debris removal took place. The HPD escorted the dump trucks to the secured debris site.

The IAPs assisted with the many tactical and logistical elements needed at various times in the incident. Because the collapse incident involved a long-term active rescue and recovery, the ongoing fire department operations remained until all the debris and vehicles were removed and searched with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) or a cadaver dog. After this was done, the HFD had at least one member (24/7) on site until it was declared safe. At the time this article was written, the projected completion date was the week of October 2. The fire department terminated command and turned over the scene on August 17, 2010. The fire department and the Sheriff’s K-9 unit searched the last vehicle that was removed on September 9, 2010. City officials, the building department, the fire department, and the high-rise management still have weekly meetings in reference to the ongoing project.


I met with each crew soon after the incident to pass on the positive feedback we received from the agencies that had worked with our department members. I also passed on my concerns and those of other members.

IC Concerns

Among the concerns were the following:

  • A few members rehabbed in the shade under the trees, which were in the secondary collapse zone. I wanted all members to go to the designated rehab areas to remove them from the scene for a while and to be medically monitored.
  • UC did not want members to get a false sense of security because the struts were in place. The next time, the struts should be placed, and we should then go to Level 3 accountability, which limits the number of personnel in the collapse pile. We would have a better grasp of staffing in that sector. Once the struts were in place, personnel were removed to a safe zone. Only limited staffing was allowed in the collapse zone for search. This eliminates having unnecessary personnel in the collapse zone and provides better control of personnel.

Since the IC had several conversations with NJ/UASI and TF1 members regarding the struts and the concern of the false sense of security the struts gave us, TF1 Leader Captain Vic Petrocelli met with HPD Deputy Chief Andrew Pawlick and me several days after the collapse and took pictures of the scene and struts. We agreed that the TF1 engineer and the constant monitoring of the scene made the site safe and that the shored area was the best access into the voids. This secondary collapse zone only began to settle after the heavy machinery hit a post-tensioned cord much later in the operation. TF1 had already established the secondary collapse zone, and this information was relayed to HFD members.

Firefighter Feedback

The search and evacuation crew waited a long time for the BLS units to bring a certain type of medical evacuation chair for occupant evacuation. HFD members advised UC that BLS did not enter the building. BLS personnel brought the evacuation chairs to the Side D entrance. The department members then would take the chairs inside and evacuate those who needed assistance. People on the upper floors took a little longer to be removed by the stair chair. Command was not made aware of this. Had this been relayed to UC, the EMS liaison at the CP would have been advised to have BLS personnel meet the HFD on the floors where the chairs were needed. This was a lack of communication from the HFD personnel in the building to UC.

MATTHEW WAGNER is the deputy chief of operations/administration for the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department (HFD). He oversees the day-to-day operations of fire suppression, the Bureau of Fire Prevention, the communications center, and the department’s civilian workforce. He is a 22-year veteran of the department and previously served as the department electrician for four years prior to becoming a firefighter. He is a member of the NJ/UASI team, assigned as the chief officer representing HFD on the task force advisory board. He is a state police certified arson investigator.

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives

No posts to display