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Rescuers at Iowa apartment building face a ‘no-win’ situation

(CNN) — At any moment, the remains of a six-story apartment building in Iowa could come crashing down. The only question is if someone else might be inside.

Davenport city officials now face the grueling decision of whether to send rescuers into the partially collapsed building to look for those still unaccounted for – or demolish the rest of the building before anyone else gets hurt.

It’s been two days since part of The Davenport building mysteriously imploded. While no deaths were reported, eight people were rescued from the building within a day following the collapse, officials said.

By Monday afternoon, the city said rescue efforts had turned into a recovery operation, and the building was expected to be demolished Tuesday morning.

But those demolition plans were scrapped after a ninth survivor was unexpectedly rescued from an apartment late Monday.

“The fire department pulled Lisa Brooks out of that apartment last night. That right there is an indicator that we need to go up there (again),” Davenport Fire Marshal Jim Morris said Tuesday.

But each time rescue crews went into the structure, the building “shifted at some point,” Morris said. And a massive weight load on what’s left of the roof – including air conditioning units and utility equipment – intensifies the risk of total collapse.

“We need to evaluate what we see between the structural engineer, our technical rescue teams and formulate the best possible way to strategically go in there,” the fire marshal said.

Five people are still unaccounted for, including “two that we believe might be in the building,” Mayor Mike Matson said Tuesday.

Protesters gathered Monday night after news of the planned demolition, saying some residents could still be trapped, CNN affiliate Quad-City Times reported. Some held signs reading, “Who is in the rubble?” and “Find them first!!”

Ryan Hitchcock is among those still unaccounted for Tuesday, city officials said.

But Amy Anderson, a relative of Hitchcock’s, said the family has accepted the likelihood that their loved one is gone – and supported the city’s plans to carefully take down the rest of the building to prevent further harm.

“I was completely … mortified about the protests and the people raising a voice,” Anderson said at a news conference Tuesday.

“They don’t know Ryan. They don’t know our family. … Ryan wouldn’t want anyone else to put their lives at risk.”

Anderson became emotional as she spoke about Hitchcock in the past tense.

“I don’t discount that he could be trapped under there miraculously. We’ve seen some miraculous things, and our God is good,” she said.

“But we don’t want to see any more families lose their lives or anybody else be injured in trying to remove that rubble and have anything fall. We would like to see the city – what their plan is to take it out piece by piece. They have given us (their) word that they are going to treat that already collapsed area with sensitivity to the remains that are underneath there and excavate them as soon as possible and recover them. That’s really what we want. We do not want a full-on demolition or a full-on delay, for that building to even collapse more and put more rubble on top of them,” Anderson said.

“Right now it is an absolute no-win situation. But this is the best plan of attack. And we don’t want anyone else hurt.”

Morris, the fire marshal, broke down several times during Tuesday’s news conference.

“We’re very sympathetic to the possibility that there’s two people …” Morris said, before pausing for nearly 30 seconds and wiping tears from his eyes. “… That there’s two people still left inside.”

“We are partnering with other entities as well as our department to remove any possible human remains with dignity,” he said.

But “as the fire marshal, I will not allow them to use explosives in a heavily populated downtown area,” Morris said. “This would be a coordinated demolition.”

Already, “the building remains in imminent danger of collapse with the condition on site continuing to worsen,” the city said Monday night. “It is the opinion of the structural engineer that the debris pile is currently contributing to the stability of the building and that removal could jeopardize or accelerate the inevitable collapse of the building.”

Too dangerous to go home

The collapse destroyed entire rooms of residents’ cherished possessions and left some with no place to live.

Army veteran Fred Voorhis lost every piece of memorabilia from his 21-year military service, along with several essential medications, he told CNN affiliate KGAN. Voorhis was sleeping when the collapse happened.

“I opened up the door to my apartment and there was daylight. It was supposed to be a hallway,” Voorhis told the affiliate. With his home ruined, he said he has no idea where he will live.

“There’s no backup plan,” he said.

The mayor said the structurally precarious building is far too dangerous for residents to return to retrieve belongings.

“First responders might go back in. But first responders will be going in to see if we can save lives” – not property, Matson said.

How an unexpected rescue unfolded

On Monday, Davenport officials said it appeared no more survivors would be found.

“After extensive rescue operations, no confirmed viable signs of life were noted,” the city said in a news release Monday night. “After multiple rescue evolutions over the course of the 24 hours since the incident, crews were unable to find any victims in need of rescue.”

Then news broke about another survivor found.

Brooks, the last survivor to be rescued, managed to call her daughter from the fourth floor of the building late Monday, the Quad-City Times reported. Family members rushed to alert emergency crews to her location.

Firefighters raised a bucket ladder to rescue Brooks, who waved out a window. The crowd cheered and chanted, “Get her out,” the newspaper reported.

A looming danger

Images of the partial collapse evoked memories of the 2021 condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida, that killed 98 people. And just last month, a parking garage with property violations collapsed in New York City, killing one person and injuring at least five.

While parts of the Davenport building remain standing, the “necessity to demolish this building stems specifically from our desire to maintain as much safety for the surrounding areas as possible,” said Rich Oswald, the city’s development and neighborhood services director.

The cause of the Davenport collapse has not been determined. But the building’s owner had current permits for repairs to the exterior wall, officials said. That owner has been served with a demolition order, Davenport officials said Monday.

“The city has been in contact with the building owner. We are currently consulting with state agencies to figure out who is going to take the lead in this investigation,” Davenport’s fire marshal said Tuesday.

“But at this time, we have not gotten to the point where we have determined whether a criminal offense has occurred in order to initiate a criminal investigation,” Morris said. “Regardless of what happens, there will be an investigation into how this happened. There must be.”