The former nightclub on Pier 34

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Ed note: This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. Author Anna Orso left Billy Penn in 2017. 

Twenty years ago today, three women who worked together in Cherry Hill were celebrating DeAnn White’s 25th birthday at a new, open air nightclub called “Heat” that sat on a pier overlooking the Delaware River.

That evening — May 18, 2000 — Pier 34 collapsed under its own weight, sending the nightclub plunging into the water, killing those three women and injuring dozens of others.

The incident set off a firestorm of lawsuits, criminal charges and finger-pointing as family and officials tried to figure out who knew what and when they knew it about the slowly crumbling structure that was expected to hold up partygoers.

What happened that night?

That night, at least 40 people were partying at Club Heat, a new, open-air bar that sat on the end of Pier 34 and overlooked the Delaware River just south of Penn’s Landing. Heat, which had opened earlier that month, was attached to a ballroom that was part of the Moshulu Restaurant, which is still around today.

Just after 8 p.m., according to archived news coverage, the entire pier (about a quarter of the size of a football field) suddenly collapsed into the river. On top of it, a massive tent made of canvas also fell into the river, effectively covering the people who had fallen in, making it difficult for them to get out and hampering rescue efforts.

Forty-three people were injured and most were sent to area hospitals, including eight rescue workers. The bodies of three women were pulled from the river: Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, Monica Kristina Rodriguez, 21, and DeAnn White, 25.

The women, who were coworkers at at the New Jersey State Aquarium across the river in Camden, each drowned after being unable to escape from the tent and debris that collapsed into the Delaware.

How could this happen?

Apparently, it was a long time coming. A study done in the late 1970s by the Philadelphia Department of Commerce determined, according to the Inquirer, that Pier 34 “had a load capacity of 500 pounds per square foot and an ‘estimated useful life’ of 12 years — or until 1990.”

At the time, the owners of the building claimed they hadn’t seen the study and weren’t made aware of the fact that they were operating a bar on a pier that was supposed to be replaced a decade prior.

But the writing was on the wall — er, the deck.

A Hidden City reporter wrote several years back that he remembered seeing a mat covering up a crack in the floor of the deck just a few days before the pier fell into the river. That crack apparently grew from two or three inches wide to a foot wide the day of the collapse itself.

And attorneys representing the victims later claimed that five years before the Pier 34 incident, the owners of the pier were informed that more than $1.2 million in repairs were needed to replace some 600 pilings.

They had experts willing to testify (before a settlement happened — more on that later) that instead of replacing the pilings, the owners installed cheaper braces that were inadequate in actually holding up the pier. Both the owner of the pier and the manager of the club had been warned repeatedly for weeks that the pier was shifting, and apparently did nothing to remedy the situation. 

So these owners must have gotten in trouble

Yep. And they were criminally charged for it.

Michael Asbell, of Merion, was once an attorney and became a developer, owning Pier 34 since the mid-1980s. Eli Karetny, of Cherry Hill, was the manager of Club Heat. Both were criminally charged with third-degree murder in connection with the deaths of the three women who drowned after the collapse.

They went to trial, but there was a hung jury. The men didn’t want to go through another trial, and according to the Inquirer, Karetny pleaded guilty in 2007 to involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment. Because of the plea, prosecutors dropped their charges of conspiracy and risking catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Asbell pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, conspiracy, and risking a catastrophe. That June, the men were both sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and from 11 to 22 months of house arrest.

And the lawsuits?

In 2004, three defendants — Asbell, Karetny and Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance Hamilton, an investor — settled with the estates of the those who died as well as those who were injured to pay out $29.5 million in damages in total.

With 25% of the funds going to each family who had a loved one die, and the remaining 25% to be split among 43 injured plaintiffs, each estate of the three women who were killed received $7.4 million.

Memorial scholarships

In 2012, developers wanted to construct a huge new high-rise at Pier 34 South that would have consisted of two apartment towers that were 10 and 17 stories apiece. But those plans eventually fell through, and the pier remains there — no apartments buildings being constructed there.

As of 215, pier owner Asbell was still living in Montgomery County. Karetny, the bar owner, was living in Cherry Hill.

Meanwhile, DeAnn White’s mother continued to keep her daughter’s memory alive. She started the DeAnn White Scholarship Award at Temple University, and also founded a scholarship at Enon Tabernacle Church. Since then, the family has given away thousands of dollars in scholarships.

“It’s her legacy and we’re very proud of that, and proud of everything that she has done,” Blanche White-Toole told KYW in 2015. “It’s just a joyous thing to know that it’s just a positive thing that she left us.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.