WILDWOOD - At least 22 people, including 10 from Branchville, who were in town for the New Jersey State Firemen's Convention were treated at Jersey Shore hospitals over the weekend after a multi-level deck collapsed at a private residence where they were attending an informal get-together Saturday evening.
Of the injured, 19 were released by Cape May Regional Medical Center late Saturday night, but three - including the girlfriend of a Branchville firefighter - remained hospitalized Sunday at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center's trauma center in Egg Harbor Township, about 40 miles to the north, after being flown there overnight for what were described as more serious injuries.
Details on their condition were not immediately available Sunday. A spokeswoman for AtlantiCare said family members of the three had asked that no information be released.
All other Branchville firefighters and their family members who were injured in the deck cave-in, including two children, were released Saturday night, according to officials on the scene.
Branchville Fire Chief Jon Frato, who suffered what he described as a crushed ankle and leg when the collapse occurred at about 6 p.m. Saturday, said in a phone conversation Sunday that approximately 12 of the 30 or so members of Branchville Hose Company No. 1 were in town for the annual convention, which draws thousands of current and retired firefighters to the beach resort community every September.
Frato said the deck gave way so quickly that he still isn't sure how it happened. "We were all sitting there and the next thing you know, the deck we were on let go and came down on the concrete below us, and then the deck above came down on us," he said.
Sussex County Fire Marshal Virgil Rome, a member of the Fredon Fire Department who was also in town for the convention, said he initially learned of the collapse after hearing the sirens of first responders rushing to the scene. "From there, the word spread pretty quickly," he said.
A nearby resident, Joann Devito, said she was sitting on her own deck when she heard a noise, turned and "saw the whole thing caving in," after which she saw "two women running and screaming."
Wildwood Fire Chief Daniel Speigel said Sunday that the second- and third-story decks "suffered a complete pancake-style collapse" from the three-story, seven-unit condominium building to which they had been attached.
He hailed the efforts of first responders gathered in the area who jumped into action to free those who were trapped.
"Whoever they were, I wanted to throw a shout-out to them for helping us get the victims removed," Speigel said. "All the victims were removed in under an hour and transported (to the hospital), which is pretty phenomenal."
Rome said firefighters from other Sussex County departments and across the state have been generously pitching in with offers of help for the injured, which have included offers of free accommodations and rides back home for those without other means of transportation. "There have been a lot of offers of assistance, which is very encouraging, and everyone's just grateful it wasn't worse," Rome said.
The Sussex County Fire Chiefs Association, in a Facebook post Sunday, said it had been asked to "send out thanks to everyone on behalf of our friends and family members that were injured in the deck collapse last night. They are all extremely grateful for the outpouring of calls, texts, posts for concern and outpouring of well wishes. On behalf of Branchville Hose Company and the Frato, Whitehead, Hanshaw, Healy and McCullough families thank you all."
The cause of the deck collapse remains under investigation. The Wildwood Fire Department, in a statement, said it was working with the city's construction office and with the building owners, engineers and contractors to secure a roof that had become unsupported due to the collapse.
Early reports originally estimated the number of injured from Branchville as between six and eight, but Frato said the actual figure was 10.
Eric Obernauer can also be reached on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.