Iowa apartment collapse leaves residents missing, rubble too dangerous to search
May 30, 2023, 6:32 AM | Updated: May 31, 2023, 2:02 pm
DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Five residents of a six-story apartment building that partially collapsed in eastern Iowa remained unaccounted for Tuesday, and authorities feared at least two of them might be stuck inside rubble that was too dangerous to search.
The three other missing residents are not believed to have been in the building when it started collapsing Sunday evening, said state Rep. Monica Kurth. Mayor Mike Matson confirmed at a news conference that not all the residents were accounted for.
A group of protesters held signs and chanted near the building Tuesday morning, arguing the city was moving too quickly toward demolishing the 116-year-old brick and steel structure. Built as a hotel, it 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 unstable remains of the structure as early as Tuesday morning, but they delayed after a woman was found Monday evening.
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.
Later Tuesday, there were no signs that authorities were conducting any sort of search. About 50 people had gathered outside a perimeter of fencing and police tape. Children drew hearts in chalk on the pavement, and a candlelight vigil included five minutes of silence in honor of the five people still missing.
Fire Marshal James Morris said explosives will not be used on the building, which is near other structures and is “unstable and continues to worsen.” Removing the debris that is propping up the rest of the building could cause further collapse, he said.
“We’re very sympathetic to the possibility that there’s two people” still left inside, Morris said as he fought back tears.
He said there will be an investigation into what caused the collapse but that it’s unclear so far whether a criminal investigation is warranted.
Officials sought to explain why Fire Chief Michael Carlsten said Monday morning that “no known individuals are trapped.” The city also had issued a statement saying 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 Tuesday. 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.”
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.”
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 structure had been renovated into a mixed-use residential and commercial building.
The building was designed so the exterior brick and steel frame support each other, so the loss of exterior brick can threaten the building’s integrity, said structural engineer Larry Sandhaas.
“When you lose the brick, you lose the stability of the building,” Sandhaas said.
Building workers had been completing interior and exterior repairs in recent months, city records show. Reports of falling bricks were part of that work, said Rich Oswald, the city’s director of development and neighborhood services.
The fire marshal said Tuesday a structural engineer hired by the owner determined that the building was safe enough to remain occupied during the repairs.
Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation activating assistance programs for the residents left homeless. After demolition was ordered, residents were prevented from going back inside for belongings due to the instability.
Davenport Hotel, L.L.C., owned by Andrew Wold, acquired the building in 2021 in a property deal worth $4.2 million, according to county records.
The city declared the building a nuisance in May 2022 “due to numerous solid waste violations” involving its overflowing dumpster, court records show.
Wold did not contest the nuisance declaration and inspectors noted similar problems 19 times between then and March 2023, records show. The city took civil enforcement action, and a judge ordered Wold to pay a $4,500 penalty after he did not appear in court.
Tuesday, the city filed a new enforcement action against Wold, saying that he had failed to maintain the property “in a safe, sanitary, and structurally sound condition” before the collapse. The city is seeking a $300 fine.
City inspectors reviewed the ongoing repairs three days before the collapse, records show. Plans called for replacing 100 feet of brick to comply with city code starting May 25, and an interior cinder block wall with rebar and grout was partially installed as of last week, according to online inspection and permitting notes.
“Wall bracing will be installed per engineer’s design,” the notes said. “Engineer will stop over periodically to ensure work is being done per his design. City inspector will stop over periodically to see progress.”
An email sent to an attorney believed to be representing Wold was not immediately returned Tuesday night.
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.
“It was horrible,” Murray said.
This story was first published on May 30, 2023. It was updated on May 31, 2023 to correct that the city is seeking a fine of $300, not $3,000.
McFetridge and Fingerhut reported from Des Moines. Associated Press contributors include Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, and Beatrice Dupuy in New York City.