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NJ Collapse: "Major Tragedy Adverted"

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HACKENSACK, NJ - Authorities called off a 22-hour rescue mission at a partly collapsed parking garage Saturday after determining that no one had been trapped when a glass canopy attached to a high-rise condominium building fell the day before, a fire official said.

"We are looking at it as a major tragedy that was averted," Hackensack Fire Department Lt. Stephen Lindner said late Saturday morning.

Officials said rescuers dug through debris overnight to reach the vehicles feared to contain occupants. But when searchers got to the cars early Saturday, Lindner said they didn't find anyone inside.

Another partial collapse occurred around 2:30 p.m. Saturday, but no injuries were reported. Crews were removed from the site after that collapse and, as a precaution, the cleanup work was suspended until at least Sunday.

"We anticipated this section was going to come down and we tried to shore it up prior to that happening, but unfortunately gravity won again," Hackensack Deputy Fire Chief Matt Wagner said Saturday afternoon.

The three-story garage in Hackensack pancaked Friday morning when the canopy fell on it. The top of the garage, level with the street, was littered with dirt, debris and glass, and the pavement split into chunks.

Rescuers needed to clear debris and shore up the structure before attempting a rescue. Both cars had their flashers on during the rescue operation, leading to reports that people may have been inside, Lindner said.

But no one was in the car on the first level down, and it was determined that no one in the car on the lower level, either. Lindner said the force of the collapse likely knocked the cars around, causing their flashers to activate.

It may be up to a week before residents - who were evacuated as a precaution - will be allowed to return to the building. Engineers continue to assess the building's structure.

Hackensack construction official Joseph Mellone said the building appeared to be structurally sound, but part of the garage - which wraps around three sides of the building - was still in peril of collapsing further. If that occurs, it would not have an effect the structural integrity of the building, Mellone said.

None of the more than 400 occupants of the two buildings that use the parking garage have been reported missing, Lindner said.

Using a remote camera and a robot Friday, rescuers had reported seeing one victim in a car on the first level down but couldn't reach the vehicle because they were concerned about the possibility of another collapse.

It wasn't clear Saturday why officials believed someone was in the car or how the camera image appeared to have resembled a person.

"We were in rescue mode," Lindner said. "We had to try and get anybody out who was in there."

It's also unclear why the canopy fell from the 22-year-old building, which is next to the garage. Several residents said workers had uprooted a tree between the street and the building within the past few months, and that a leak in the basement was being fixed.

Resident Chris Baldo was in his first-floor unit when he felt the building shake. He looked out his window and the garage "was just gone," he said.

Tax records show the condo tower was built in 1988. Equity Residential Properties of Chicago bought in 1998 for $36.3 million.

Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Equity Residential, said the building owner did not have much information yet about what happened.

Police were checking with the building management company for a list of tenants, but no one was reported missing so far, Chief Tomas Padilla said.

___

Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J., contributed to this report.



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