By Kevin Coughlin and Berit Ollestad
Fortunately, the only victim of Thursday’s roof collapses in Morristown appears to have been an unlucky raccoon, which plunged through the ceiling of the former Blockbuster video store on Speedwell Avenue.
The back of that vacant structure collapsed under the weight of snow and ice, as did a portion of the roof next door at the former Lincoln Mercury dealer on Spring Street. Across town, a vacant building on Market Street also experienced a roof cave-in.
If any people had needed rescuing, they would have been in capable hands.
Morristown firefighters tapped a mutual aid network called USAR–Urban Search and Rescue–to help when they suspected a homeless person might have been in the rubble of the former dealership, based on footprints in the snow outside.
Established in 2003 with federal Homeland Security money, USAR comprises firefighters from Morristown and 10 other towns.
They received specially equipped rescue vehicles and emergency response training, in exchange for a pledge to assist each other at disasters, said Morristown Fire Chief Robert Flanagan.
Firefighters from Millburn, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Paterson, Newark and North Hudson responded on Thursday, marking the first time that USAR members have been called to Morristown. Had it been necessary to extract someone from the Spring Street building, these extra personnel were prepared to shore up the structure to safeguard rescue workers, Chief Flanagan said.
“It was very successful,” he said of the joint response. “They were very good with communications.”
Photos by Berit Ollestad.
Assistance also came from the Morris Township fire department, the Morris County Sheriff’s Office and New Jersey Task Force One, an all-volunteer search-and-rescue organization with special expertise in extricating people from collapsed structures.
USAR members provide rapid responses to crises; Task Force One members are geared to follow up for longer periods, Chief Flanagan said.
On Thursday, Task Force One members from Lakehurst brought dogs trained to sniff for bodies in debris.
Two dogs went through the Spring Street building and determined that nobody was buried inside.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty has supported the town’s continuing participation in USAR. He described Thursday’s cooperation as “very impressive.”
“It was incredible to watch these guys work,” the Mayor said. “They have a wealth of knowledge. They really know what they’re doing.”
Next, he said, town building code officials will make sure owners of the collapsed structures either demolish or repair them. The Spring Street building has been targeted for demolition anyway, to make way for a CVS pharmacy.
“Looks like we’ve got a head start on that,” said Lori Lotz, who with her husband John owwns the Spring Street dealership and the former Blockbuster building.
Running from collapse to collapse on Thursday, the Mayor said he felt like the “Mayor of Disasters.” His tenure has included an earthquake, a tropical storm, a hurricane, a freakish October snowstorm and now, the winter from hell.
Chief Flanagan, whose fire station has doubled as a public warming center several times this winter, said Thursday’s events posed new challenges for him, too.
“In the 20 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a roof collapse because of snow,” the Chief said, between hits of nasal spray to combat a cold.
Morris County has had its own snow-related roofing issues. Earlier this week some solar panels came down in the Mennen Arena parking lot in Morris Township, damaging a vehicle, according to county Administrator John Bonnani.
Parking has been suspended beneath the solar canopies there, as well as under county solar installations at Boonton High School and at the County College of Morris, until snow melts or can be removed.