A former store building at 401 Main St. in Pine Bluff partially collapsed Thursday night, rupturing a nearby natural gas line and disrupting train and automobile traffic while leading to an extended shutdown of the street between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

A former store building at 401 Main St. in Pine Bluff partially collapsed Thursday night, rupturing a nearby natural gas line and disrupting train and automobile traffic while leading to an extended shutdown of the street between Fourth and Fifth avenues.


No one was injured, Pine Bluff Fire Chief Shauwn Howell said Friday morning. Howell said the collapse of the 11,400-square foot, two-story building’s rear wall into an alley was reported to authorities by telephone at 6:55 p.m. Officials later determined that debris from that incident had produced minor damage to a nearby store building, which also is unoccupied.


The police and fire departments responded along with personnel from the city’s street and inspection and zoning departments. Workers from Entergy Corp. and the Centerpoint Energy gas company also reported to the scene.


Entergy employees took down a neutral electrical line at the site. Officials engineered the fall of the Fourth Avenue wall of the building around 11:30 p.m. to reduce the risk to Centerpoint Energy workers before they successfully removed concrete and other debris and capped the gas line on both ends of the block, Howell said.


Trains traveling along the Fourth Avenue rails sharply reduced their speed in order to generate as little ground commotion as possible in the area of the weakened structure, the Main Street-frontage portion of which was still standing Friday afternoon.


Street department supervisor Rick Rhoden said the Main Street barricades would remain in place until officials deem the area to be safe for vehicular traffic, which he said probably won’t occur before Saturday. Rhoden, who noted that two of the street department’s four employees dispatched to the scene remained there until after 4 a.m. Friday, said the front of the building must first be brought down and cleared from the site.


Howell said he and other officials discussed how the side wall should be brought down to clear the way for the gas line’s capping. Howell said the walls of the building — which city building inspector Scott Warren estimated is more than 100 years old— were only about eight inches thick, which created concern for the integrity of the remaining Fourth Avenue side wall. Howell said as is the case with any structure believed to contain asbestos, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality was contacted and advised of the situation.


Heavy equipment belonging to Warrior Environmental Services was utilized in bringing down the side wall, city Chief Inspector Mitzi Ruth said. Some of the company’s equipment sustained minor damage during the process, officials said.


Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said Friday that she arrived at the scene soon after the incident was reported and stayed for several hours.


"The response was phenomenal," the mayor said. "I want to praise everyone who was there."


Hollingsworth said responders "communicated, cooperated and coordinated their actions."


"Everyone did an outstanding job," she said, adding that Union Pacific Railroad officials altered train schedules to help keep the situation under control.


The mayor said that even with the controlled collapse of the side wall, some debris nevertheless scattered in the area. Howell said that 12 local firefighters were among the responders and noted that debris from the side wall spewed upward and outward, causing minor damage to a firetruck in the vicinity.


Howell believes the advancing age of a number of downtown buildings, most of which are empty, could generate a growing safety risk in the downtown area.


"We regularly walk through to check on them," he said. "We want to remain aware of any potential problems."


According to local historian Kenneth Hensley, a contributor to the Jefferson County Historical Quarterly, the building once housed a Baim’s Eagle store, a forerunner of the Baim’s clothing store that operated in downtown Pine Bluff for nearly 90 years.


The property — closed for some time after housing several other businesses, including a pet shop and a children’s store — was purchased in 1992 by Mr. and Mrs. Joe Meadors of Star City, according to real property records in the Jefferson County Courthouse.


Efforts to reach the Meadorses failed as their telephone number was unavailable.


Howell said fire department officials had been aware for some time that the building’s roof was being damaged by "taking on water." He said the fire department had notified the Meadorses of the problem.