WILDWOOD — Jon Frato, chief of Branchville Volunteer Fire Department, was on the way home Monday from Wildwood as his wife drove, in too much pain himself to take the wheel.
On Saturday, at 6 p.m., the decks at the house his department has rented for at least five years collapsed, sending bodies flying and the get-together into pandemonium.
“I had to stay because I had a hard time walking, so I had to stay an extra day,” Frato said. “My chest still hurts and everything else.”
At least 19 people were injured in the gathering over the weekend as firefighters convened in the city for the New Jersey Firemen’s Convention. At least 12 of the injured were members of the Branchville department and their families, including two children, in what Wildwood Fire Chief Daniel Spiegel called a “pancake” type collapse, the third-story deck crashing onto the deck below it.
A Vineland firefighter, Milton Santiago Jr., was also hurt, according to the Daily Journal.
Frato’s leg was trapped under the deck, and he is dealing with chest pains and other aches from the collapse. He had an MRI at AtlantiCare and was the last of the group to be released, he said, but he wasn’t the most seriously injured. One woman on the deck suffered a fractured sternum.
Now, recovery begins for the company, their families and guests as they head home to Sussex County and try to make sense of the accident. But in Wildwood, the work is just getting started. The cause of the collapse is under investigation and the city began removal of debris on Monday, according to Deputy Chief Ernie Troiano III.
The decks braced the hip-roof of the seven-unit building, and the city’s construction official, Rick Allen, was coordinating the effort to restabilize the roof, working with a builder.
Workers could be seen Monday morning clearing debris and removing remaining portions of the decks from the side of the building, the last remnants of the chaotic scene that unfolded there days before.
Gail Ivins, who owns the home next door, was on the deck with friends when they heard a crackling noise as the firefighters next door were settling in to eat.
She watched the second-floor deck pull away from the house, as those on it scrambled, trying to figure out where to go. They “kind of rode down the second floor on the outside pillars” and came down at an angle, she said, sliding off the deck. The third-floor deck came down in the same fashion, with both floors leaving small sections hugging the home with people still on them, including a 4-year-old girl. Those sections followed in much the same way, Ivins said.
A deck collapse in Sea Isle in July sent several people to the hospital during a house party. Partygoers in Sea Isle said there were 8 to 10 people on the deck, but neighbors said they saw 20 to 30 people.
As for what caused Saturday’s collapse, Troiano III said he wouldn’t speculate.
“We’re not sure if the deck was even overloaded. ... It’s hard to really say,” Troiano III said. “I don’t want to say anything that it looks like, you know, we’re accusing them of overloading the deck and carrying on. I don’t even know if that was even the case.”
As for others planning parties on high decks, Troiano III urged caution.
“It’s like anything, you just gotta use common sense,” he said.
Firefighters in the city for the convention brought their engines with them, and trucks from Ocean City, Cape May City, Stone Harbor, Rio Grande, the Villas and Erma all responded to the scene, in addition to trucks from the Wildwoods.
The outpouring of support from other fire companies after the scene was cleared has been “amazing,” Frato said. Members of the Byram Township (Sussex County) Fire Department brought food after the incident to feed those affected.
“It was overwhelming what everybody in other fire departments and Wildwood, Sussex County fire departments and our own (did),” Frato said. “(It) was just amazing.”
This week, recovery continues.
“I’m assuming ... we’re probably gonna end up meeting up and talking about it,” Frato said.
Those who witnessed the accident will remember the moment it started. Ivins, the neighbor, said it seemed to happen in slow motion. She called the fact that no one was killed an “act of God.”
“It was absolutely one of the worst scenes we’ve ever seen in our life,” Ivins said, “and we will never forget it.”