Davenport officials look to resume search of collapsed building after survivor is found

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Davenport
Workers secure the area a day after an apartment building partially collapsed in Davenport, Monday, May 29, 2023. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
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By William Morris and Paris Barraza, Des Moines Register

Davenport leaders on Tuesday said as many as five people may be missing after the partial collapse of a downtown apartment building and that two may be in the rubble.

The acknowledgment came a day after they said they were wrapping up rescue operations and preparing to demolish the building.

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The change of plan, announced in a news conference, also comes after persistent protests outside the building by hundreds insisting that there are still people to be found.

One frustrated man pushed through a police barricade Tuesday, saying he wanted to conduct his own search. Police escorted him back out of the cordoned-off zone.

Now, after the discovery Monday of a resident still in the building nearly 48 hours after the collapse, they said they are consulting with experts about the possibility of further rescue operations.

The six-story building at 324 Main St. was evacuated after part of its west façade collapsed at about 5 p.m. Saturday, dropping tons of debris and tearing open rows of apartments. Emergency responders entered the building to help other residents escape, and were able to remove one injured victim from the rubble early Sunday.

Fire Chief Michael Carlsten had said Monday that “no known individuals are trapped.” Speaking Tuesday, city Fire Marshal James Morris they believed they had conducted a thorough search.

But on Tuesday, officials said there are strong indications that at least two residents — Branden Colvin and Ryan Hitchcock — may still be in the building or under the rubble.

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“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.

“This could be a place of rest for some of the unaccounted,” said Mayor Mike Matson.

With engineers warning the remainder of the structure is precarious, further searches are dangerous, but Morris said the city was looking for options to do so anyway.

“It is our goal to be able to conduct a search for additional occupants and any pets that still remain inside,” he said. “We are currently working with technical rescue teams to determine the best options to provide an additional search.”

Davenport
Workers secure the area a day after an apartment building partially collapsed in Davenport, Monday, May 29, 2023.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

What is the Davenport?

According to county records, the building known as “The Davenport” was built in 1906. Previously the Davenport Hotel, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Since its renovation into housing, county assessor records show there were 79 apartment units as well as ground-floor commercial spaces.

The property has changed hands several times in the past decade, according to county records, most recently in 2019 when an entity called Davenport Hotel LLC bought it for just under $4.2 million. That entity is registered to a Bettendorf resident, Andrew Wold, according to state records.

City officials confirmed Tuesday they’ve been in contact with Wold, but said it’s too early to determine a cause for the collapse or whether any wrongdoing was involved. Contact information for Wold was not immediately available.

Work was being done on the building’s 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.

Structural engineer Larry Sandhaas said at Tuesday’s news conference that one factor in how the collapse unfolded, and the subsequent shakiness of the rest of the building, appeared to be the building technique used in its original construction. The steel framework inside the building depended in part on the exterior brick walls for support.

“That’s not how you build a modern building,” he said. “You had five stories collapse into one almost immediately. … That reduces the chance you’ll have what are called void spaces, large spaces where people can survive.”

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Frustration, anger after rescue work initially called off

Protestors gathered outside the building Monday afternoon and again Tuesday morning, saying the city wasn’t doing enough to identify and find those still possibly trapped inside.

By 10 a.m. Monday, 18 hours after the collapse, city officials had announced the shift from rescue operations to recovery, saying at the time saying trained dogs had not found signs of bodies in the rubble and no residents were unaccounted for. Due to the “unstable condition” of the remainder of the building, city leaders said “demolition is expected to commence in the morning (Tuesday).”

Outside the building, residents and family members told reporters they several people living in the building had not yet been located. On Monday evening, they were proven right when one of those residents, Lisa Brooks, was spotted waving from a partially wrecked fourth-floor apartment. Rescue workers were able to use a fire truck to retrieve her from the building where she’d been stuck overnight.

Davenport
Protesters hold signs advocating for search efforts to continue for their missing family members, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, near the site of an apartment building that partially collapsed in Davenport, Iowa. The six-story building at 324 Main St. partially collapsed on May 28.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

After Brooks’ rescue, crowds of at times several hundred gathered outside with signs demanding officials “Find them first” and “Who is in the rubble?”

Tuesday’s city news conference included a call by Amy Anderson, a relative of the missing Hitchcock, for calm and for people to let the city do its work.

“I was completely just kind of mortified about the protests and the people raising a voice” Monday night, Anderson said. “They don’t know Ryan. They don’t know our family. The city does have a plan, and pushing any delays is one more day that he’s under there.”

Outside, Hitchcock’s cousin, Chris Creekmore, said she disagreed with Anderson’s statements.

“We want to know if he’s in that rubble, or in that building,” she said. “We want it searched.”

Attendees interrupted Tuesday’s news conference several times to demand faster action, and Morris, the fire marshal, responded that the city was doing the best it can in an extremely dangerous ongoing situation.

“You can’t run up to a pile of bricks and rocks and just start throwing things off, as much as we want to,” Morris said, pausing to wipe his eyes. “We want to get everybody out, and we want to do it right now.”

Prior warnings building was unsound

The collapse didn’t surprise Schlaan Murray, a former resident of the building who said his one-year stay there was “a nightmare.”

Murray, 46, moved into his apartment in February 2022 and almost immediately began having issues — the heat and air conditioner didn’t work, and there were plumbing problems in the bathroom. He said he made multiple calls to the management company, and rarely got a response. When a maintenance person did stop by, they never completely fixed the problems, he said.

“They would come in and put some caulk on it,” he said. “But it needed more than that. They didn’t fix stuff, they just patched it up.”

He questions how the building passed inspections.

“It was horrible,” Murray said, adding that he felt the conditions were so bad that he didn’t want to bring his children to his apartment.

Murray said he moved out a month before his lease was up in March, and still hasn’t received his security deposit. Despite deplorable conditions, many residents were like him and struggled to come up with the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, required to move elsewhere.

The repair work underway prior to Saturday’s collapse involved the same section of the building that would soon crumble, according to residents. Donalda McDuffy, whose daughter lived there and was able to escape Saturday, shared a photo with the Register of crumbling brickwork a week before the collapse.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at [email protected], 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

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