By Donald Wittkowski
The old, wood-frame firehouse was no match for the 20-ton excavator and its giant claw.
Each time the excavator tore chunks from the rickety building Tuesday morning, there was an awful crunching sound as an avalanche of wood, glass and bricks crashed to the ground in a heap of rubble.
Soon afterward, the firehouse was unrecognizable. The front part was obliterated. A piece of Sea Isle City’s history dating to the early 1900s had disappeared in mere minutes.
It was an unceremonious end for the approximately 100-year-old building on West Jersey Avenue. Once an indispensable part of the community, the old firehouse fell into disrepair in recent years and was deemed by the city as too deteriorated to save.
A demolition contractor began the grim task of tearing down the building at around 9 a.m. Tuesday. Just two hours later, a good portion of it was gone. The entire building was expected to be razed by the end of the day.
“It was built good,” Tom Edwards, vice president of Transformation Enterprises Inc. of Egg Harbor City, the demolition contractor, said of the firehouse as he sat at the controls of the excavator.
The rubble will be removed by the end of the week, with about 90 percent of it going to a Philadelphia recycling center and the rest of it to a landfill, Edwards said.
All of the old contents of the firehouse were demolished as well. A final look inside the crumbling building on Monday revealed an old refrigerator, stove, kitchen cabinet and piles of junk in what had become a makeshift dumping ground.
“There was nothing valuable in there,” said Don Parker, a worker with Transformation Enterprises.
The city will next have to decide what to do with the property. Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said the land will remain in the city’s hands and will not be sold.
The property could be redeveloped for another public purpose. Sea Isle’s updated master plan recommends converting the site into some type of public recreation. The land is adjacent to a city playground and basketball courts on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
Once a major part of the community, the firehouse faded in importance in the past 40 years. In 1978, it was replaced by a new public safety building on JFK Boulevard that housed the police and fire departments. Then in 2015, Sea Isle’s new City Hall became the headquarters for the fire department.
Sea Isle’s Tourism Office moved into the old firehouse in 1993 and made the building its home until it shifted operations into the city’s new Welcome Center in 2012. Afterward, the old building was used for storage by the city’s Public Works Department and the Beach Patrol.
One of the few spectators who watched the building being demolished Tuesday morning was Robert Noble, a former Sea Isle resident who recalled when his Boy Scout troop used the firehouse as a gathering place about 15 years ago.
“It was pretty cool being part of this building’s history as I grew up in Sea Isle,” said Noble, 31, who now lives in Cape May Court House. “I remember it being a pretty cool, old building. They told us it was an old firehouse.”
Noble, an Eagle Scout, remembered when members of Boy Scout Troop 76 of Sea Isle held their meetings inside the firehouse and also used the building to store their equipment when they went on camping trips.
Much of that same building was already gone by the time Noble stopped by to see the demolition work. As a parting memory, he posed for photos in front of a mountain of rubble.