(Story published Friday, Oct. 31, 2003)

ATLANTIC CITY -- With a rumble that pierced the air like a jet engine, the top floor of a new 12-story Tropicana parking garage collapsed as construction workers poured its concrete deck Thursday, sending it and four other stories pancaking down as hundreds inside ran for their lives.

Four workers died, including two whose bodies were trapped in the rubble for hours and one whose body hadn't been recovered 12 hours after the 11 a.m. collapse.

Twenty more workers were injured at the site of the $245 million casino expansion, at least four critically. Workers scrambled out of the structure as rescuers began arriving at the scene.

Chaos broke out as workers, some shedding tears, some covered in dust and blood, desperately searched for their fellow union brothers, as police worked with site foremen to account for the missing.

"I was on the third level, right there when the whole stairwell came down," said Ed Lex, 42, of the Local 89 insulators union, who fought his way out of the building 40 minutes after the collapse. "We just ran and got out. It was like the Twin Towers, smoke and debris everywhere. It was a dark cloud. You had to run through the hallway sucking down debris."

Tropicana hotel guest James Norton witnessed six or seven men crashing down with the debris as he looked out his room window.

"It was like a sliding board," the Baltimore man said.

The impact of the collapse, which happened in the part of the structure closest to Atlantic and Brighton avenues, shook nearby streets. It began when a corner of the top deck gave way. People ran out of nearby businesses and homes to see if a plane had crashed.

"Everybody was asking `Where was the plane? Where was the plane?,' " said Luis Loaiza, 25, who works in a nearby auto-parts store and looked up at the garage moments after the collapse. "There were guys up there standing with their hands on their heads like `Oh God.' "

The 2,400-space garage is part of a casino expansion that was due to open in March 2004. It also includes a 502-room hotel tower, convention space and a retail, dining and entertainment complex called The Quarter.

"The terrible thing is the loss of the lives and the impact on all their families. It's a horrible thing to contemplate," said Dennis Gomes, president of resort operations for Tropicana parent Aztar Corp. Gomes said authorities have not told him why they believe the garage collapsed.

Firefighters got reports of 40 people possibly trapped when they first arrived and rescued at least 21 people in the next hour after combing through the debris. A huge crane hoisted firefighters up into the garage on a small platform, the same way several victims were brought down to the street and to ambulances.

As the rescues continued, authorities also feared for the safety of those on the ground. While five floors had crashed down, affecting nine of the 12-story garage's levels, one main support wall remained standing. It had, however, split into four pieces, with one main section and a few slender columns arcing precariously skyward.

About 150 members of the state's urban search-and-rescue task force, many of them the same people who looked for victims in the debris of the World Trade Center after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, later joined the hunt for survivors, bringing in dogs that detected humans were still inside. They were among hundreds of state and local law-enforcement officers who worked side by side with firefighters and EMS crews from around the region.

All of the city's firefighters were called in to work and an extra shift of police officers also was deployed.

Authorities had to physically restrain some construction workers who tried to cross police lines to go back inside the building to look for loved ones. "I gotta find my guys," shouted one man who tried to fight his way past police.

A police officer even stopped a priest who approached the site about an hour after the collapse, but then waved him inside the disaster zone when he saw his clergy collar.

"Go to Brighton and Pacific," he told the priest, "That's where you're needed most."

Several blocks of the city were shut down for the entire day, causing gridlock throughout the resort. Albany Avenue, or Route 40/322, was shut down for part of the afternoon and all other major arteries into the city were choked.

Gov. James E. McGreevey consoled the families of some of those confirmed dead, also sharing a prayer with the mother of one worker who was among three still missing several hours after the collapse.

"She's hoping against hope. This is as heart-wrenching as it gets," he said.

Authorities found one of the deceased on seventh floor and another on the sixth floor, both about 30 feet in from the collapsed area, said resort Fire Prevention Chief James Foley, who is also a member of the state search-and-rescue task force.

Rescuers tried to contact the other victim, an ironworker whose body was lodged in debris between the second and third floors, by calling his cell phone and by using listening devices, but by 11 p.m. they were calling attempts to get to him a recovery, not rescue mission.

McGreevey said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, would fully investigate the incident, including whether lead contractor Keating Building Corp. followed safety regulations.

Keating, based in the Philadelphia area, is ranked 147th in the Engineering News-Record list of the country's 400 largest contractors. It has been involved in at least nine major Atlantic City projects totaling about $500 million in construction in the last decade.

"This is a difficult time. Obviously, our first concern is the well-being of the people that are injured or missing," the company said in a statement Thursday.

Paul Roskoski, the lead OSHA investigator for the region, said part of the probe would include investigating if the concrete was laid too fast, without time for it to dry. Absecon-based Fabi Construction Co. is the project's concrete subcontractor.

Last October, three construction workers were injured, two seriously, when a one-story structure on Pacific Avenue in the same Tropicana expansion project gave way as concrete was being laid . In 1995, a construction worker died during an accident that happened during another Tropicana expansion.

The project's lead architecture firm, Los Angeles-based Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, would not comment on Thursday's collapse.

"I was told not to accept any calls at this time," said a receptionist at the firm's Los Angeles office.

Officials with the project's secondary architect, SOSH Architects of Atlantic City, did not return a call.

Authorities said the floor where the collapsed stories were resting started to bow in the hours that followed Thursday's collapse. At 2 p.m., parts of the building were still moving.

"There is an immediate fear of collapse of the structure as we speak," Mayor Lorenzo Langford said in an afternoon press briefing. "Join us in prayer and hope that this catastrophe doesn't get worse than it already is."

Seventeen victims were taken to Atlantic City Medical Center's City Division; two went to the hospital's Mainland Division. Two more victims were taken to Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point.

One rescued victim died at an area hospital, Public Safety Director Bob Flipping said. By 7 p.m., one victim who was presumed dead still was trapped in the debris as rescuers brought another of the deceased workers out to a waiting ambulance at Iowa and Monterey avenues.

Construction workers and rescuers set up an impromptu command post there - about a block from authorities' main staging area - at about 2 p.m., 40 minutes before one of the deceased workers' bodies was lowered to the ground level in a service elevator.

On the street, about 100 construction workers formed a huddle on a platform around the elevator. Using white sheets, wooden poles and nails, the hardhats built a tunnel for rescuers to walk through as they carried the victim to an ambulance, taking off their helmets as a show of respect as the body passed them.

Of the injured, some suffered head injuries, thoracic injuries and broken bones, ACMC Regional Trauma Center director Dr. Gabriel Ryb said Thursday night.

Authorities did not identify the injured or deceased, but planned to work through the night shoring up the building to prevent further collapse and attempting to retrieve the last victim's body.

(Staff writers Thomas Barlas, John Brand, Joe Weinert, Mark Tyler and John Froonjian contributed to this report.

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.