City officials said they hoped the Mecca Trucking & Co., owners of both demolished properties, would consider building something in their place. Mecca Trucking & Co. spokespeople could not be reached for comment, as they spent most of the week monitoring the demolition and the removal of all debris.
The building next to the Holland Tunnel had not been occupied for over a decade. But Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham said Thursday that he hoped the property owners would rebuild a commercial facility that would complement the waterfront neighborhood close by.
Toward the end of the week, outbound lanes were in full use and transportation officials allowed E-Z Pass customers to drive on the inbound lanes, as firefighters continued to monitor the smoldering fire while cranes gouged the brick and steel structure and its timbery neighbor.
"It's been taxing for us, but we've been keeping up with our duties," said Jose Cruz, deputy director of the Fire Department.
When tollbooth collectors witnessed smoke teeming from the building on the morning of Friday, March 22, firefighters responded by clearing all Holland Tunnel traffic. The hulking structure, a century-old fixture that preceded the creation of the tunnel, sits beside the tunnel's entrance.
Firefighters soon discovered that two men were trapped in the building. Dan Ledbetter, 51, and Daryl Harnay, 41, were rescued by firemen from a high window with ladders moments after the Fire Department arrived on the scene, Cruz said.
Police officials believe the two men were homeless and charged them with trespassing, according to Edgar Martinez, deputy director of the Police Department.
Although fire officials believe the fire was an accident, both men are being held at the Hudson County Jail in Kearny where they are being questioned by arson investigators as to the cause of the fire. Martinez said both men had outstanding warrants.
Any information they could provide would be helpful, Cruz said, because arson investigators would not be able to determine the cause from an on-site study as a result of the subsequent demolition of the buildings.
At the outset, firefighters appeared to have the fire under control in the eight-story warehouse facility. But expanding structural damage made it possible that the building would collapse, calling for a complete evacuation for all firefighters.
"We didn't want another Worcester," Cruz said, referring to the fire in a cold-storage facility in Worcester, Mass. that killed six firefighters in December 1999. "We took steps before anything happened."
Cruz said the fire, believed to have begun on the first floor, traveled upward quickly because of the cork-insulation inside the exterior walls.
By Saturday, fire officials determined that the building would have to be demolished. But this new solution received an immediate setback by strong winds Sunday morning as flames from the storage facility sparked a fire in an adjoining warehouse.
The original three-alarm fire was then coupled with a two-alarm fire, calling for a total of 30 pieces of equipment for the duration of the five-day struggle.
"We had a pinch of help from the outside," Cruz said. "It's been taxing for us, but we've been keeping up with our duties."
The second building was lined with timber and soon realized the need for demolition too.
Fire engines kept extinguishing the smoldering fire in the rubble Thursday as cranes cleared the debris and knocked down the rest of the structure.
As the Holland Tunnel remained closed last weekend, traffic jams sprouted throughout Jersey as commuters scrambled to find alternatives of getting into New York.
"We felt for the commuters, but we had to do what we had to do," said Cruz.
By the end of the week, the Holland Tunnel welcomed E-Z Pass customers into New York City and the outbound lanes completely reopened. Cruz expected the Holland Tunnel would be fully operating some time next week.
The incident brings back memories for city officials who recalled other times that the burning building commanded public attention.
Formerly owned by the Union Terminal Cold Storage Company, the building had caused alarm in the past when ammonia fumes leaked into the toll plaza's ventilation system from a mechanical problem within the cold storage facility in 1992. Shortly thereafter, similar problems with the storage facility persuaded authorities to prohibit it from using its refrigeration system.
While most of the stored food was removed from the building, several thousand pounds of squid remained untouched inside. The squid was soon removed as commuters and toll collectors began complaining about an unbearable stench in the immediate area.