As fans packed Shuckers Waterfront Grill to cheer on the Miami Heat against the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night, the waterfront patio deck gave way, crashing into Biscayne Bay, spilling dozens of terrified patrons into the water.
The accident happened at the popular North Bay Village spot, in back of the Best Western Plus on the Bay Inn & Marina, 1819 79th Street Causeway.
Dozens of police and fire-rescue units from around Miami-Dade rushed to the scene after the sudden collapse, which happened about 9:45 p.m., minutes before the game’s halftime, as the Heat was pulling away from the Spurs.
As many as two dozen people were injured. By 11:20 p.m., 15 people had been transported to various hospitals, two of them in serious condition, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Eugene Germain Jr. Another fire captain said one person might be missing and that a search was underway as rain fell.
Germain said approximately 100 people were on the deck when it fell into the water. The deck’s official capacity was not immediately known.
“There was just a crack, and then we were in the water,” said Crystal Infante, 23, who was eating and watching the game with friend Hernan Reyes, 21, when the deck, about five feet over the water, collapsed. “It was really hard to get out, and you couldn’t find anyone.”
Infante said the water was shallow enough for them to stand, but it was difficult for them to get out because wood, umbrellas, tables, chairs and other debris surrounded them.
Multiple air rescue units also were called to the scene. 79th Street was shut down.
Pictures from the scene showed rescue workers pulling green plastic deck chairs and piles of debris from the water.
Leah Masters, a hostess at Shuckers, told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 News that people had just gotten to their feet to cheer a Heat basket when the deck collapsed.
As helicopters circled over the scene, rescuers carried people away on stretchers, one after another.
Chris Volz, 39, said he was sitting at the western end of the bar, about 10 feet from where the deck gave way.
“Everybody’s watching the game. It sounded like a freight train, then everyone was gone. The deck went down like a V.”
He said it happened in a split second and that no one had a chance to get away.
Bartenders were diving into the water to help rescue patrons. Fire trucks pulled to the water’s edge and extended their ladders to help patrons climb to safety.
Shuckers lost power when the collapse happened, casting victims and rescuers alike into the dark.
Ernesto Reyes, a regular at the eatery on Miami Heat game days, had pulled up to the “last open parking spot” at the restaurant when he heard a loud cheer, then a roaring sound followed by screams as the deck patio collapsed in up to six feet of dark water.
“I ran inside and saw people in the water everywhere. I started pulling out chairs and tables and helping them get out; many were in shock. They were just standing in place as if they couldn’t believe what had just happened to them.”
Others were in a panic, he said.
“It was a very chaotic scene.”
He helped a young mother with a large gash on her head and a baby in her arms, a young woman who lost her lower teeth and a young man trapped by heavy tables.
Reyes, 36, a paralegal who lives nearby, thanked his boss for keeping him late at work at the Law Offices of Kent Harrison Robbins.
“I would have been on that deck. This is my favorite place to watch the Heat; there is always a big crowd here.”
Reyes thinks the collapse occurred just before the halftime of the Heat game, the team was pulling away from the Spurs by 10 points.
Mayra Samubio, 40, of Orlando, who had gone to dine at the restaurant on the first day of her vacation in North Bay Village, was just about to enter the balcony when it collapsed.
“I saw a lot of people crying and very scared. Good thing there weren’t that many children on the deck,” she said.
Miami Beach resident Peter Zalewski was also on the restaurant side, watching the game.
"There's like a rumbling and then a short time later, everybody just disappeared," he said. "All the tables just sort of disappeared and then suddenly this whole burst of dust came inside the restaurant."
He said many people initially panicked, running toward the exit because they didn't know what was going on.
"Nobody could really figure out what was happening. We didn't know if it was a bomb; we didn't know what it was because of the loud noise."
Tables with umbrellas turned dangerous as people who fell were covered in the umbrellas and hitting their heads on wood. Many people who he saw had scrapes, bruises and lacerations on their heads.
"Most of the people were just calling out, 'Is anybody missing, is anybody missing?' You just kept hearing that over and over and over."
He said there was chaos for about 10 minutes before the first police officers arrived, followed eventually by fire-rescue workers.
"It's a little startling because you're sitting there watching the game, you're complaining about Wade not making his baskets and Bosh not getting any rebounds and next thing you know, there's this huge noise, the landscape just disappears, people disappear and the ones still standing start running toward you. It was definitely a moment of chaos.”
Patrons banded together to help those who fell in the dark water, despite fears that the rest of the structure might not be sound. He said some patrons who got out of the water quickly, jumped back in to move tables, chairs, umbrellas and other items so those trapped could escape.
"Nothing was organized, no one knew anybody from anyone," said Zalewski, who joined in to help pull people up. "But everyone was sort of thrown in and lended a hand somehow."
By 11 p.m., a triage unit had been set up in the parking lot, and victims began to be transported to area hospitals.