Construction Worker Dies after Part of Synagogue Collapses in Manhattan

AMNY - October 22, 2019

Two workers were injured — one fatally — when a three-story wall collapsed on them as they worked to demolish an historic Lower East Side synagogue on Monday morning.

The workers were rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian Downtown Hospital. One of the workers died shortly after arrival, and the other was treated for minor injuries, fire officials said. Neither man has been identified.

The collapse occurred just after 10 a.m. on Oct. 21 when the workers were in the process of demolishing Beth Hamedrash Hagodol at 60 Norfolk St., a former Orthodox Jewish synagogue was more than 120 years old.

The synagogue had fallen into disrepair as many of the Orthodox community moved from the Lower East Side to other parts of the city, residents said.

It was unclear why the workers were so close during the demolition, but fire officials said rescue crews had to pull them from under the rubble, as parts of the building hung on the edge of further collapse.

It took minutes for emergency personnel to remove them from the debris. The worker who died at the hospital had gone into cardiac arrest, officials said. Firefighters kept their distance as a stairway was barely holding onto its supports. Pieces of the façade also hung in the balance as Buildings Department officials probed the debris.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) slapped a stop-work order on the site as the investigation continued. Permits for the demolition were issued to Titan Industrial Services and as of this afternoon, the company was formulating a way to stabilize the collapsed wall under the supervision of engineers from DOB.

DOB officials say there is “no imminent danger of further collapse, although structural stability inspections conducted by the Department’s Forensic Engineering Unit are still ongoing.”

John Rivers, a volunteer with a local church group, told amNewYork he was standing outside the sight when it collapsed.

“It all of a sudden just came tumbling down,” Rivers said. “I, at first, thought it was just part of the demolition, but then the Fire Department came. I hope they are alright.”

Ira Smerkish, a former member of the synagogue congregation and a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said efforts had been made to try to save it, but they lacked the funds needed.

“I used to go to synagogue there, but now I go to another one nearby,” Smerkish said. “It was a lot of work to clean it out and get all the Jewish books out of it. We tried to save it. It hurts to see it like this.”

The building was a gothic revival structure built in 1850 as the Norfolk Baptist Church and purchased in 1885 by the Jewish community that settled on the lower east side at the time.

It was one of the largest synagogues on the Lower East Side, originally the oldest Russian Synagogue in the United States, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Place in 1999.

Though the building was landmarked in 1967, the congregation had dwindled at the turn of the millennium and the remaining congregants were unable to maintain the building, which had been damaged by storms. Despite efforts to raise funds to save it, the effort was abandoned. The synagogue was closed in 2007.

A suspicious three-alarm fire on May 14, 2017 brought an end to efforts to save the building.

Susan DeVries contributed to this report.