MILLVILLE — Workers at the historic Levoy Theatre heard a noise Monday afternoon then noticed plaster falling from the north wall, just moments before parts of the 102-year-old building’s wall collapsed

http://pressofac.mycapture.com/mycapture/enlarge.asp?image=33452398&event=1145476&CategoryID=57516"> “They decided it was time to get out quick,” said Mayor Tim Shannon, who spoke to workers.

A portion of the building’s north wall then fell to the ground, Fire Chief Kurt Hess said. About 15 minutes later, the entire front of the building on High Street fell inward, burying the site in bricks, steel girders and other debris, he said.

The collapse injured one firefighter and forced authorities to evacuate four blocks of buildings on High Street for fear of a gas leak.

The Levoy was being extensively rebuilt, and about 12 workers from Ogren Construction were inside the site, officials said. The theater was undergoing an $8.5 million restoration and was to be the focal point of a downtown that had undergone a rebirth in the past few years.

The theater had been gutted and only the original exterior walls remained. New steel roof trusses and foundation improvements also had been installed. Workers were busy taking down some of the interior walls, part of the last major demolition work.

Once completed, the theater would have had a new stage, orchestra pit, concession booth, 700 seats and electrical and sound systems.

Monday’s incident happened so quickly that many people in the area were shocked at what occurred.

Laura Stepp, who works at the Brightman Agency title company near the theater, said she was sitting at her desk when she “heard a rumble.”

“It was like an airplane flying too close,” she said.

Stepp said a secretary from an adjoining law office came in and said the Levoy had collapsed. Fire officials were soon at the building, telling everyone inside to evacuate, she said.

Shannon said the situation would have been worse had the front of the Levoy fallen across High Street.

“This was bad enough,” Shannon said. He said there will be an investigation by city construction officials into what caused the collapse.

Lauren Van Embden, who chairs the theater’s board of directors, was already meeting with construction officials at the Levoy offices Monday night.

Van Embden, whose eyes appeared teary, said Levoy operators will eventually decide what to do with the project.

Shannon was upbeat about the future of the Levoy.

“My gut feeling is that there will be a theater,” Shannon said. “We’ve come too far. What is it, the phoenix rising from the ashes?”

One city firefighter, identified by friends as David Smith, of Morias Avenue, suffered what authorities said was a broken leg when debris fell on him as he left an adjacent building. Smith was part of a team of firefighters checking the building for gas leaks, authorities said. He was taken to South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center in Vineland, but by early Monday evening, he was back on the scene, on crutches.

The incident forced authorities to close High Street between Mulberry and Sassafras streets. Buildings in that area were evacuated as emergency crews searched for possible gas leaks. City police walked up and down side streets telling people watching from front porches to get inside their homes.

Hess said the collapse took out several gas meters for apartments and businesses in a building on the south side of the Levoy site. Gas had to be shut off at the curb, he said. Electricity to those buildings also was shut off.

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army also were on the scene. The Red Cross took care of an elderly woman with diabetes who had to be evacuated from her home, while the Salvation Army provided food and drink to emergency workers, Hess said.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197