Witnesses said they just thought it was a train passing overhead, but the sound of screams and a rising dust cloud told them otherwise.
Just yards from congested Jamaica Avenue at one of the busiest times of day, the second floor of an 109-year-old vacant structure at 78-19 Jamaica Ave. crumbled to the ground around 6:15 p.m. on Friday, destroying the structure and damaging a section of the newly-renovated Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Volunteer Ambulance Corps building next door, shutting down the Woodhaven Senior Center that operates there.
“It was like one of those scenes you see in a disaster movie during an earthquake,” said one witness, who would only identify herself as Tammy. She said she thought the rumble of falling bricks was just a passing J-subway train and did not think about it as she walked into a nearby store, until she turned around and saw the dust plume rise.
“At first, I thought a train had fallen off the tracks,” Tammy said. “Then I saw the crushed car and some guy run.”
Miraculously, no one was hurt, though first responders furiously removed bricks to make sure no one was trapped underneath.
The collapsed portion of the building was on the block along 79th Street, a few yards from Jamaica Avenue. One minivan parked in front of the building on 79th Street was crushed by the debris, though no one was inside the vehicle at the time.
A few witnesses said a train had just passed overhead right before the collapse.
Emergency responders shut down Jamaica Avenue between 85th Street and the Brooklyn border Friday night and stopped all subway service overhead out of fear the vibrations from the train would cause a further collapse. Dozens of fire trucks and emergency vehicles lined Jamaica Avenue for blocks well into Friday night, creating a traffic nightmare in the side streets near the site.
By Saturday afternoon, police had kept 79th Street closed to traffic, but passersby were able to get a close-up look at the collapse. Officials from the Department of Buildings arrived to assess the situation.
Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association said the collapse damaged the kitchen used by the senior center, but much of the ambulance corps building is structurally sound.
“It’s not as bad as initially feared,” he said.
Kathy Sexton-Dalbey, president of the WRHVAC, said the equipment, including the ambulances themselves, were not damaged.
“I was one of the first ones down here when this happened and I actually got the ambulances out,” she told Wendell on his radio show Friday evening.
The WRHVAC went through several years of financial trouble until recently.
“We just finally got some stability to the building and now with the building next door imploding on itself, it’s just a mess,” Sexton-Dalbey said.
The Woodhaven Senior Center will be closed for a number of weeks, and seniors who attend the center will be bused to the Ozone Park Senior Center at 103-02 101 Ave. A shuttle bus will take seniors from All Nations Baptist Church at 86-76 80 St. to the Ozone Park center every half hour between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. until the senior center reopens.
The building that collapsed was built in 1904 and once housed a car dealership — a curb cut in front of the building is the only sign cars were once driven into and out of the structure. Most recently, the building housed a furniture store.
A spokesman for the FDNY said it was too early to identify the cause of the collapse, but officials were looking into the possibility that the structure was weakened by the heavy rain last week. The building’s structural integrity has been in question already, according to the Department of Buildings.
Records from the agency say the building was issued a vacate order in February, 2012 and the department noted structural flaws then, including missing bricks from the facade.
The owner of the building has $18,000 in outstanding fines and 11 environmental control violations. Nine of those were still open at the time of the collapse.
Who actually owns the building is a mystery. The most recent filing with the city Department of Finance is an assignment of a mortgage on the property between the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and JP Morgan Chase Bank, but no individual names are listed in the filing.