THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Garage roof collapse brings prayers, painstaking rescue

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By David Abel and Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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When the first firefighter crawled into the Lynn parking garage where the steel roof had just collapsed early yesterday, he heard a horn honking and men shouting.

About two hours later, a team of firefighters shoveling mounds of snow and using life-saving equipment unearthed two middle-aged men huddled on the floor of a car, which had its windows blown out and its roof crushed.

“Two of the luckiest guys I’ve ever met,’’ said Lynn Deputy Fire Chief James McDonald.

The main hazards of this winter’s unusually copious amount of snow have been mainly on the road. But yesterday’s heavy snowfall brought a new menace: the risk of roofs collapsing.

In addition to the incident in Lynn, two roofs collapsed in Avon, and part of a roof at a large warehouse in West Bridgewater caved in. There were no injuries.

Accumulating snow presents a growing problem for roofs across the state, said Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

He said the agency was working to ensure that people and businesses know how to clear roofs to prevent similar incidents. He suggested that homeowners use snow rakes to clear snow safely from the ground. Commercial roofs, which are often flat, should be shoveled and their roof drains cleared, he said.

“Any additional snow is going to be a concern for homeowners and business owners,’’ he said.

In Lynn, Roger Ennis, the city’s chief building inspector, said the collapsed building is unsafe and will be closed until extensive renovations are done. He said the cause of the collapse was clear: “excessive snow load.’’

Peter Sullivan, one of the two men rescued, was just glad to get out alive. “You just don’t know when you get up in the morning if today’s your last day or not,’’ said Sullivan, 55, of Beverly, who was rescued along with Cesar Jimenez, 59, of Salem. Both men escaped without serious injury.

Sullivan, speaking to reporters yesterday at Massachusetts General Hospital while sitting next to Jimenez, who lay in a bed wearing a neck brace, said they thought they were goners.

“God was looking out for us,’’ Sullivan said.

The two were in the parking garage off the Lynnway shortly before 6 a.m. when an estimated 100-by-125-foot section of the roof fell into the building, trapping the men in a car beneath a pile of steel I-beams, corrugated steel, plywood, insulation, roofing materials and 3 1/2 feet of accumulated snow, rescue officials said.

Sullivan said he had picked up Jimenez on the way to work because he could not get his car out of his driveway. The two men work for The Ride, an MBTA service that offers transportation for the elderly and the disabled.

When they got to work, their assignments were not ready, so they parked in the garage to await instructions.

“We were just sitting there, drinking coffee, thinking how great life was,’’ Sullivan said.

They heard a loud banging noise, which at first they thought was caused by someone working on a lift used to get wheelchairs in and out of vehicles.

“We looked up,’’ Jimenez said. “We saw the roof coming down.’’

Sullivan added: “We heard a couple of loud bangs . . . and the whole roof was falling down on top of us.’’

At first, each made sure the other had survived.

“I asked Peter, ‘How you feel?’ Peter said, ‘I’m alive,’ ’’ Jimenez said.

The men used cellphones to notify their dispatcher and to speak with a lieutenant at the Lynn Fire Department. They also called their families.

Sullivan was overcome with emotion as he talked about those minutes when they realized they were trapped. “But we had each other,’’ he said.

“We held each other, you know, and we did a lot of praying and trusting that God was watching out for us and that He still has work for us to do,’’ Sullivan said.

He said he spoke with his wife, telling her, “I was in some trouble and I didn’t know if I was going to make it.’’

She comforted him, he said, and they prayed as he and Jimenez waited for help.

“We couldn’t see anything until the Fire Department cut off the roof,’’ he said of his car. “I was constantly honking my horn.’’

Sullivan added, “We were blessed, that’s for sure.’’

McDonald said firefighters were alerted about 5:50 a.m. and shortly after began shoveling the snow and cutting a 20-foot-by-20-foot hole into the collapsed roof, where they hoped to find the vehicle. Once they did, they enlarged a hole around the Honda’s sunroof. The men were then able to wiggle free, and firefighters pulled them out.

“They were upbeat. They were lucid,’’ said McDonald, adding that the roof of the car was pressed against the headrests, giving the men little room. “They were just looking for access out.’’

He said they would have probably been killed if the car was pointing in a different direction.

The men were among 15 employees of the Greater Lynn Social Services who were arriving for work as drivers for The Ride. The agency contracts with the MBTA to provide services in the region, officials said.

Paul Crowley, executive director of Greater Lynn Senior Services, said that after the trapped men were contacted by staff members via cellphone, the staff scrambled to locate three other workers.

“There were 30 or 40 tense minutes,’’ he said. “Until we found out everybody was safe, there was a lot of praying going on.’’

Crowley said two of the employees were on the road and a third had taken a vacation day.

Michael Leninti, safety manager for the senior service, said a security camera captured the roof collapse. “It wasn’t a dramatic collapse; it was more of a slow sag,’’ he said.

Ennis, Lynn’s building inspector, said that the corrugated steel building was one of four in the complex and that engineers were inspecting to see whether any were structurally flawed.

The building where the roof collapsed had the most snow on it, he said.

“When you get this amount of snow, it just piles up high,’’ he said, adding that workers were removing the accumulated snow from the other buildings. “This is what can happen.’’

Billy Baker, Brian Ballou, John Ellement, and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com; Bryan Marquard at bmarquard@globe.com.