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Community mourns after freak accident causes fatal building collapse

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MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (PIX11) — The initial call that police and firefighters responded to Friday morning was apparently for a building collapse. There certainly was a collapse at 177 Maplewood Avenue, but that collapse was inside the Coda Restaurant at that address, and it proved fatal.

“[The] first floor collapsed into the basement,” said Deputy Fire Chief Joe Callaghan at the scene. “[The victim] was trapped under wooden beams, and there was a side collapse from the walls, which were rock and dirt.”

Rock, dirt and other debris are what three construction workers had been pulling out from the basement of the restaurant for nearly two weeks. They’d been working to build an interior staircase connecting the food preparation room in the basement to the kitchen on the first floor, as a replacement for an external staircase. That first floor gave way above them without warning, and without anyone being able to detect the emergency from outside.

Reed Ericson was at work in a deli four doors down when the collapse happened. He said he was surprised to see police and firefighters respond en masse to the scene, since everything appeared to be normal.

New Jersey building crumbles in fatal collapse

Investigators don’t suspect foul play.

“Maybe because they were working below street level,” said Ericson, “that could explain why we didn’t hear anything.”

Guo Tai Chen, 50, a contractor based out of Elmhurst, Queens, died in the collapse. Medics also pulled another construction worker out of the rubble in serious condition, and one other worker emerged unscathed. PIX11 encountered the uninjured worker, who is as yet unidentified, after first responders took his deceased and injured coworkers from the scene. He was not interested in talking. Neither was a man who was apparently the restaurant’s morning manager. He was visibly shaken up as he embraced friends and coworkers who had shown up to check on him.

One of those coworkers was the restaurant’s owner, identified by customers as Luke Finn. He appeared to be disturbed by what had happened, and chose not to speak publicly about what had happened at his eatery.

Maplewood officials said in a press conference at the scene that the construction work that had been taking place in the restaurant was legal, and that all permits for it were in order and up to date.

Town officials condemned the building until an investigation into the incident is completed and building inspectors can determine that it is structurally sound. That’s likely to take days. What lingers in the meantime is a wide array of emotions in what’s usually a quiet, suburban town.

“I was terrified,” said Stephan Emogene, who’d been working in a cafe two doors away from the Coda Restaurant when the collapse occurred. “I was definitely scared,” he said about seeing the seriously injured construction worker carried out on a stretcher. Like everybody else PIX11 News encountered, Emogene was shocked to learn that Guo Tai Chen had died.

“Everybody’s sad,” said Cindy Stone, a frequent patron of Coda, who’d been in the restaurant for drinks eight-and-a-half hours before tragedy struck. “It’s a close knit community,” she said, “and we just wish everybody well.”