GARWOOD, NJ — A partial collapse of the vacant Garwood Paperboard factory injured no one but closed a major county thoroughfare July 3 for nearly 12 hours and wiped out power in more than 600 homes and businesses on one of the hottest days of the year.
The three-story, century-old building originally had been slated for demolition the evening of July 2, the night before the upper floors crumbled, Mayor Sara Todisco said. However, a few days before crews were to knock the structure down, a severe weather forecast forced crews to postpone the demolition. No new demolition date had been scheduled, according to Garwood police Capt. Doug Stoffer.
Bricks, wood and other debris came down at about 8:30 a.m., Stoffer said, crushing a chain-link fence bordering the property, severing power lines and spilling onto North Avenue, which also doubles as state Route 28. The road bisects the county north and south from Elizabeth to the western border in Plainfield and is a major east-west passageway.
“It was like a loud boom,” said North Avenue resident Wayne Fenner, who was outside applying a weed killer just across the street when the building fell, sending electrical sparks skyward from the severed power lines. “There was this fireball. It was a huge flash.”
Police blocked off North Avenue from Cedar street to Lincoln Avenue, detouring traffic onto Second and South avenues.
“My son was here and said he thought a plane hit the building,” said Marty Frankel, who owns Frankel’s, the men’s work clothing retailer directly across North Avenue from the building collapse.
Todisco and Stoffer said two men from the demolition crew were on site at the time of the collapse doing prep work; they heard the building fall and immediately ran into the street to stop traffic.
It took approximately two and a half hours for PSE&G to confirm that power was disconnected from the downed lines, after which demolition of the structure began. Only a small section of the building, including the “castle” portion that served as the main entrance, remained by the day’s end. North Avenue was reopened at about 8:30 p.m., shortly after power had been completely restored, Stoffer said.
He said a structural engineer examined the site to make sure the remainder of the standing building was secure.
“Just thank God no one was hurt,” Stoffer said.
North Avenue was opened for Independence Day but closed again for a few hours on the morning of July 5 for PSE&G crews to do additional work.
Todisco also said he was grateful that no one was hurt, and said the Borough Council will “investigate the matter.”
The building had received approval to be razed and make way for a 124-unit apartment building with a public community room. Interior demolition began last summer, along with the removal of sheet metal exterior sections, and the building was a shell at the time of the collapse.
Officials from Garden Homes of Short Hills, the company that bought the property to erect the apartment building, said during a town hall meeting last year that they hoped to begin construction work this year and complete the planned four-story structure by 2021.
The Paperboard building originally was owned by the Aeolian Company, an organ and piano manufacturer founded by New York City piano maker William B. Tremaine in 1887. A purpose-built factory was constructed on the site in 1900; a 1905 postcard depicts two large buildings on both sides of the railroad tracks bordering the current property to the rear. The factory had its own boiler power plant and a water tower, which was removed in 2009.
The property was later owned by the Garwood Paperboard and used for producing and recycling paper products. The most recent owner, Millen Industries, still used the property for paper-related production but most of the site was decrepit.
In 2013, the Garwood Borough Council passed a resolution authorizing the Planning Board to investigate whether the site should be designated an “area in need of redevelopment.”
A 2015 preliminary investigation report described the Paperboard plant as a 200,000 square-foot “imposing multi-story industrial structure,” with windows that were broken or damaged or boarded up with wood. According to the report, most of the buildings are “derelict” or in “disrepair.”