New York City girl survives 180-foot fall down chimney

Sunday, August 3, 2008

NEW YORK -- A 12-year-old girl just wanted to show her cousin the view from her family's Manhattan rooftop. Instead, she fell into a chimney and plummeted down the flue for 14 stories, emerging nearly unscathed to tell her story after landing in a pile of furnace soot.

Grace Bergere, a young rock drummer, was recovering at a hospital on Saturday with an injured hip. A 2-foot-deep pile of ash and dust probably saved her life by cushioning her fall when she crashed into a basement furnace, fire officials said.

"I broke my leg! I broke my leg!" she yelled out after rescuers spotted her soot-caked hand reaching out for help.

Fire Chief Austin Horan said the 12-year-old emerged "relatively unscathed" from the accident Thursday night at the Westbeth Artists Housing complex in the West Village neighborhood. The complex houses artists, including Grace's father, Steve Berger, a jazz guitarist.

"It's a miracle; it's an absolute miracle," he said.

Firefighters responding to a 911 call never expected to find the girl alive. While her father screamed her name, they opened a little metal door at the bottom of the chimney, ready for the worst.

When Grace's small hand poked out, "I just jumped back," Lt. Simon Ressner told reporters Friday. "I wasn't expecting anybody alive at the bottom of the shaft, so I was shocked."

When they pulled her out, Grace was covered with black, only her eyes and mouth visible.

She said she was having a hard time breathing and was afraid her neck might be broken; they placed a brace on her and gave her oxygen.

By then, her mother had rushed to her side, crying while her father comforted the child as paramedics took her to the hospital.

The rooftop adventure started at about 10:30 p.m., when Grace decided to show her cousin visiting from California the spectacular view from a rooftop deck overlooking the Hudson River.

To get to the highest point, she climbed up a 25-foot ladder alongside the big brick chimney. When she reached the top, there was a surprise: the gaping mouth of the chimney, which swallowed her and sent her plunging down the narrow flue into the basement.

"I think she probably went down head first and landed on her back," Ressner said.

Grace was recovering at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Center on Saturday, talking to visitors and watching TV, but still in pain. She was in fair condition.

Grace was featured in a 2006 Associated Press article about the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Manhattan. While there for a week, she started a band called the Fluffy Skulls with friends, took instrument lessons and wrote songs.

She also has performed with the New York City Opera children's chorus, but apparently found rock 'n' roll drumming more exciting.

"It's more wild and not angel-like," she said then, adding, "I love making buttons and shirts and playing drums. I mean, I learned how to play drums completely."

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