Iowa Building Collapse: While People Are Still Missing, Demolition Is Delayed

On Monday morning, hours after part of a century-old apartment building collapsed onto a downtown street, officials in Davenport, Iowa, said they were not aware of anyone still trapped in the rubble.

That afternoon, as split bricks of the wobbly structure exposed the interior of the unit, the city announced that the Fire Department had surrendered control of the site and restoration work had begun. Demolition, they said, was “expected to begin” the next day.

But as night fell on Memorial Day, it became clear Davenport's leaders had miscalculated: After protesters gathered at the site, rescue crews found a resident in the building and towed him to safety.

“The immediate question I know people ask is, ‘How did he get there? And why wasn't he found sooner?'” Mayor Mike Matson said Tuesday as officials acknowledged that more people were still missing. “I am completely transparent with you. I do not know. We don't know.”

The partial collapse of a six-story building near the Mississippi River, and the handling of it afterward, angered residents who questioned whether more could have been done to prevent the collapse and who said the city was moving too quickly to declare a rescue operation complete. .

Dozens of people gathered outside the building on Tuesday, some carrying signs with messages such as “Save Lives, Not Property”. At least five people with ties to the building were still unaccounted for on Tuesday, officials said, including at least two people believed to be inside. No deaths have been confirmed.

Like in New York City, where a parking garage collapse with an unresolved safety violation killed one person earlier this year, and in Surfside, Florida, where a condo building collapse in 2021 killed 98 people, there have been warnings about the problem on 324. Main Street in Davenport, a city of 100,000 that lies about halfway between Des Moines and Chicago.

In January, Davenport officials said, complaints about the building led to brick work, even though the structure, which houses dozens of units and residents, was deemed structurally sound by outside engineers. Months later, they said, another report led to a permit being issued for repairs, which were ongoing at the time of the collapse.

Aaron Aguilar, who visited the collapse site on Monday, said he had lived at 324 Main and had been doing maintenance work there. The structure was badly damaged by a violent storm in August 2020, Aguilar said, and some residents had to evacuate sometime after that. He said the collapse appeared to be in a part of the building close to the worst damage from the storm.

“I cried this morning when I found out what happened,” said Mr. Aguilar in an interview, added that he still knows the people who live there.

Attempts to contact the landlord on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Authorities said an investigation would be launched.

Officials in Davenport defended their handling of the collapse on Tuesday, noting that rescue crews rushed to the scene on Sunday and rescued several people despite significant personal risk. In the hours that followed, search and rescue teams from across Iowa, including trained dogs, had arrived and found no sign of anyone still buried in the pile.

“Our ongoing evaluation of what to do or not do in real time,” said Mr. Matson Tuesday when he was pressed about why the city announced plans to begin demolition when, it turns out, people are still missing.

With demolition plans pending, next steps remain uncertain. Structural engineers and rescue crews said the building was extremely shaky, bound to collapse on its own at some point, and that even carrying out another sweep would be dangerous.

“It's really hard: You can't run into a pile of bricks and rocks and start throwing stuff away as much as we want,” said Jim Morris, assistant fire chief and municipal firefighter. “We want to get everyone out and we want to do it now.”

Later that day, rescue workers entered the building and emerged with six cats, two snakes and a lizard whose owner had provided photos and told them where they were.

All the pets appeared to be in good health, said Erika Gunn, executive director of the friendly local community, who was waiting outside to check on the animals. “We are happy and relieved,” he said.

However, there was no immediate news regarding the status of the missing citizen.

Amy Anderson, who said family member Ryan Hitchcock was among the missing, asked for calm and respect as the crew surveyed the building and prepared to continue the search.

“I'm imploring our community to let the city do their job now,” said Ms. Anderson, who describes Mr. Hitchcock and said he didn't want anyone to get hurt while looking for him. “It's an absolute no-win situation, but it's the best plan of attack and we don't want anyone else to get hurt.”

Outside the apartment building, Branden Colvin Jr., 18, said he was “still hopeful” about his father, Branden Colvin Sr., who is still missing.

The older Mr Colvin had returned to the building from work around noon Sunday, visited a neighbor and then returned to his unit for a nap, family members said.

Nobody has seen him since. His black Honda Accord remained parked outside.