PHILADELPHIA - Investigators pulled wooden planks and plastic chairs from the Delaware River on Friday in a search for clues to why a pier collapsed, sending dozens of nightclub patrons into the water and killing three women.
Mayor John Street ordered an inspection of all piers on the river, many of which support nightclubs and are believed to be 100 years old. The former industrial area along the river is now dotted with restaurants and other nightspots catering to a college-age crowd.
''Our concern at this point is really to make sure that when people come out here tonight to visit some of these other piers, that people are safe,'' Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston said Friday.
On Thursday night, people at the open-air nightclub Heat said they had almost no time to react when the pier gave way under their feet. The 40 people tossed into the river desperately tried to reach the surface through a tangle of wooden planks and plastic furniture, and a canvas awning that had fallen over them.
''I heard a loud crash, and then all hell broke loose. I went straight down, then I was just trying to fight my way up,'' said bartender Joseph Capaci, 28, of Villanova.
Killed were DeAnn White, 25, of Philadelphia; Jean Ferraro, 27, of Cherry Hill, N.J.; and Monica Rodriguez, 21, also of Cherry Hill. News reports said they were at the club celebrating White's birthday, which would have been Saturday. All but nine of the 37 injured were treated and released.
One of the club's employees, Lawrence Price, said he had noticed a crack on the pier earlier in the day but was told to cover it with sheet metal.
''It is way too premature to speculate on a cause,'' said Police Commissioner John Timoney.
The president of the company that owns Heat and the Moshulu said he was working near the pier Thursday night and stayed on the scene until early Friday.
''I am distraught and saddened by the tragic accident at Pier 34,'' Eli Karetny, president of HMS Ventures Inc., said in a statement released Friday. ''I have been involved in restaurant operations from the pier for many years. The safety of our patrons has always been of utmost importance. My heart goes out to all our patrons and employees who were involved and their families.''
Karetny said he was cooperating with investigators.
Joe Martz, the city's managing director, said the owners, not the city, are responsible for inspections of the pier.
The Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the Delaware River shipping channel, was helping with the cleanup and serving as technical consultant. And a forensic engineering firm specializing in pier design will help the city with the investigation.
''We don't have the expertise to handle this. It's just too big for us,'' said Ed McLaughlin, commissioner of licenses and inspections.
The river remained closed to all ship traffic along the Philadelphia waterfront as the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers removed the debris.
Philadelphia will be the site of next summer's Republican National Convention.
Many of the clubs in the watefront area - including strip bars and after-hours dance bars - are in big warehouses that had been left abandoned for decades in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
''One of the events that triggered the conversion to entertainment clubs was in 1987, when we lit the Benjamin Franklin Bridge,'' said Joe Diemer of the Delaware River Port Authority.
''An awful lot happened right after that. Many of these warehouses that had been abandoned a long, long time started being very attractive for clubs and restaurants just because the bridge presented a nice view at night.''