Residents of collapsed Iowa building were allowed to stay as reports noted crumbling wall
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A structural engineer’s report issued last week indicated a wall of a century-old apartment building in Iowa was at imminent risk of crumbling, yet neither the owner nor city officials warned residents of the danger days before the building partially collapsed, leaving three people missing and feared dead.
The revelation is the latest flashpoint after Sunday’s partial collapse of the building in Davenport, where residents have lashed out at city leaders over what they see as an inept response.
“Do I have regrets about this tragedy and about people potentially losing their lives? Hell yeah. Do I think about this every moment? Hell yeah.” Mayor Mike Matson said Thursday. “I have regrets about a lot of things. Believe me, we’re going to look at that.”
City officials said Thursday that they did not order an evacuation because they relied on the engineer’s assurances that the building remained safe.
The state’s search and rescue team, search dogs and cameras were used Thursday to continue combing the building for missing people. Matson said crews were also consulting with experts about how to safely bring down the structure, which remains extremely unstable, while being respectful of bodies that could be buried in the debris.
The six-story building collapsed shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday. Rescue crews pulled seven people from the building in their initial response and escorted out 12 others who could walk on their own. Later, two more people were rescued, including a woman who was removed from the fourth floor hours after authorities said they were going to begin setting up for demolition.
Earlier this week, authorities said five people were missing, but Davenport Police Chief Jeff Bladel said during a media briefing Thursday morning that two of them have since been accounted for and are safe.
City officials on Thursday named those unaccounted for as Brandon Colvin, Ryan Hitchcock and Daniel Prien. The city said all three “have high probability of being home at the time of the collapse and their apartments were located in the collapse zone.”
Bladel said transient people also often enter the building but there is no indication anyone else was inside and missing.
The city announced that each displaced household would be eligible for $6,000 in addition to a $5,000 state grant for households up to 200% of the federal poverty level. Money also will be available for businesses in the building and those nearby.
City Administrator Corri Spiegel said the building likely is “filled with asbestos” given its age and the city will develop a plan to ensure workers and people in the area are protected when the remaining structure is demolished.
Matson said he and others spoke Thursday with officials from Miami-Dade County, Florida, about how they responded to the collapse of an apartment tower in 2021 that killed 98 people.
The city on Wednesday night released documents, including structural engineering reports, that show city officials and the building’s owner were warned that the parts of the building were unstable.
A report dated May 24, just four days before the collapse, suggested patches in the west side of the building’s brick façade “appear ready to fall imminently” and could be a safety hazard to cars or passersby.
The report also detailed that window openings, some filled and some unfilled, were insecure. In one case, the openings were “bulging outward” and looked “poised to fall.” Inside the first floor, unsupported window openings help “explain why the façade is currently about to topple outward.”
Despite the warnings, city officials did not order that about 50 tenants leave the building.
Rich Oswald, the city’s director of development and neighborhood services, said officials relied on assurances from the structural engineer hired by the building owner. The engineer said the building wasn’t in imminent danger of collapsing on residents.
Andrew Wold, the building’s owner, released a statement dated Tuesday saying “our thoughts and prayers are with our tenants” and that his company, Davenport Hotel, L.L.C., is working with agencies to help them.
County records show Davenport Hotel, L.L.C. acquired the building in 2021 in a deal worth $4.2 million.
Records show that several bricks had fallen from the building’s façade in 2020 after a severe wind storm.
As their building deteriorated, tenants repeatedly complained in recent years to the city about a host of other problems they say were ignored by property managers, including no heat or hot water for weeks or even months at a time, mold and water that leaked through their ceilings and toilets. City officials gave orders to vacate some individual apartments and tried to address other complaints, but a broader building evacuation was never ordered, records show.
City officials ordered repairs after they found seven fire code violations on Feb. 6. They were told three weeks later by building maintenance officials that “none of the work was completed,” records show.
Assistant City Attorney Brian Heyer said he’s unaware whether the city had considered earlier civil enforcement action to protect residents. Only after the collapse did the city file a civil infraction seeking a $300 fine against Wold for failing to maintain the structure in a safe manner. He will be required to pay for the cost of demolition, Heyer said.
Heyer said an enforcement action the city filed that resulted in a $4,500 fine in March for repeated trash overflows came in response to complaints from downtown residents and businesses about the debris.
Emails sent to an attorney believed to be representing Wold have not been returned.
MidAmerican Energy, an electric and gas utility, complained to the city in early February about an unsafe brick wall at the west corner of the building. The utility said its employees would not work in the area until improvements were made, including the installation of scaffolding.
A city notice dated Feb. 2 said the wall was gradually failing and cited “visible crumbling of this exterior load bearing wall under the support beam.” The notice also said the exterior brick veneer had separated and allowed rain and ice to cause damage.
The notice ordered Davenport Hotel to provide an engineer’s letter “stating this is not an imminent danger” and to take immediate steps to repair the problems, including installing scaffolding for protection so utility workers would be protected.
A Feb. 8 letter to the city from engineering company Select Structural said an engineer conducted an emergency site visit Feb. 2 and determined the crumbling wall “is not an imminent threat to the building or its residents, but structural repairs will be necessary.” It called for replacing a wall and other repairs, but cautioned of risk.
City inspectors monitored progress at the site and learned Feb. 28 that “the west wall has collapsed into the scaffolding” and were informed by workers that it would be a larger job than expected, a city spreadsheet shows.
By March 3, the contractor, Bi-State Masonry, Inc., walked off the job after the building owner balked at approving a change order with a higher price tag due to “unforeseen work needing performed,” the document states. It’s unclear what happened next, and a person who answered a call to Bi-State declined comment.