2 likely in Iowa apartment collapse wreckage, more missing, mayor says

Published 5:17 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Five Iowa residents remain unaccounted for, including two people whose remains may be in a pile of rubble at the site of a partially collapsed apartment building, officials in the city of Davenport said Tuesday.

Mayor Mike Matson confirmed the numbers at a news conference following criticism that the city was moving too quickly toward demolishing the building, which partially collapsed Sunday afternoon. The 116-year-old brick and steel structure, built as a hotel, had more recently been used as apartments, and tenants had been allowed to remain even as bricks began falling from the building.

After the partial collapse, the city had announced plans to begin demolishing the building as early as Tuesday morning, but they delayed after a woman was found Monday evening.

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Officials now say immediate demolition was never intended, but they did want to quickly stage the site for the tear-down. The woman’s rescue prompted officials to see if they could safely enter and ensure others weren’t inside, but that is extremely difficult when the building could collapse at any time, they said.

“This could be a place of rest for some of the unaccounted,” Matson said. The city is trying to determine how to bring down what remains of the building while maintaining the dignity of people who may have been killed, he said.

Fire Marshal James Morris said explosives will not be used on the building, which is near other structures.

A relative of one of the missing pleaded at the news conference for people to understand that authorities want to control the tear-down without dumping more material onto the rubble. “I plead with our community to let the city do their job,” the woman said.

The woman said her relative wouldn’t want any more lives put at risk.

The building is “unstable and continues to worsen,” Morris said. A structural engineer says searches should be avoided near the debris because more could collapse, and officials are considering that assessment before searching inside again.

Morris said removing the debris that is propping up the rest of the building could cause further collapse.

“We’re very sympathetic to the possibility that there’s two people” still left inside, Morris said as he fought back tears.

On Tuesday, protesters held signs saying “Find Them First” and “Who is in the Rubble?” Some used a megaphone to shout out names of residents. The building had 53 tenants in about 80 units, the police chief said.

City officials said rescue crews escorted 12 people from the building shortly after a middle section collapsed at about 5 p.m. Sunday, and rescued several others, including one person who was taken to safety overnight Sunday.

“There was a lot of screams, a lot of cries, a lot of people saying ‘Help!’ when the building came down,” Tadd Mashovec, a building resident, told KCCI-TV. “But that did not last, and two or three minutes, and then the whole area was silent.”

By Monday morning, Fire Chief Michael Carlsten said “no known individuals are trapped.”

The city then issued a statement saying that the owner was served Monday with a demolition order and the process would begin Tuesday morning.

The discovery of another survivor Monday evening, rescued by ladder truck from a fourth-floor window, prompted the city to reevaluate, they said. The woman was pulled to safety only after popping out a window screen and waving to people gathered below.

“We had no indications from any of the responders that we had, any of the canines, any of the tools at the time” that there was anyone else left alive in the building, Morris said.

Patricia Brooks said her sister, Lisa, attempted to leave the building but rushed back to where she thought she could shelter most safely — in her bathtub. Brooks spoke with her sister when she was being evaluated at the hospital following rescue from a window on the side of the building that was still standing.

“It was just exhausting and a nightmare,” Chicago resident Patricia Brooks said of the roughly 24 hours before Lisa’s rescue.

The family begged with police and city officials to find Lisa in the apartment starting Sunday, said daughter Porshia Brooks.

“They allegedly did a sweep and said they didn’t find anybody,” said Porshia Brooks of Moline, Illinois. “They’re trying to tear the building down without doing a proper sweep.”

It’s unclear what caused the collapse, which left a gaping hole in the center of what was once the Davenport Hotel, a building listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Built in 1907, the brick over steel and concrete structure had been renovated into a mixed-use residential and commercial building.

Work was being done on the exterior at the time of the collapse, said Rich Oswald, the city’s director of development and neighborhood services. Reports of falling bricks were part of that work, and the building’s owner had a permit for the project, Oswald said.

The fire marshal said Tuesday that the owner had also hired a structural engineer who determined that the building was safe enough to remain occupied during the repairs.

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation activating the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and the Disaster Case Management Program for the residents left homeless. After demolition was ordered, residents were prevented from going back inside for belongings due to the instability.

Authorities confirmed that residents had complained of unmet maintenance problems. The Quad-City Times reported nearly 20 permits were filed in 2022, mainly for plumbing or electrical issues, according to the county assessor’s office.

The collapse didn’t surprise former resident Schlaan Murray, who told The Associated Press that his one-year stay there was “a nightmare.”

Murray, 46, moved into his apartment in February 2022 and almost immediately had issues with heat, air conditioning and bathroom plumbing. Calls to the management company rarely got a response, and even if workers did stop by, “they didn’t fix stuff, they just patched it up,” he said.

He questions how the building, where he said he didn’t even want to bring his children, passed inspections. He moved out a month before his lease was up in March, and still hasn’t received his security deposit, he said. Many residents were like him, he said, struggling to come up with the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, despite deplorable conditions.

“It was horrible,” Murray said.