DES MOINES, IOWA — 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-storey 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 that two of them have since been accounted for and are safe.
City officials 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 per cent 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 protect workers and others when the structure is demolished.
The city on Wednesday night released documents, including structural engineering reports, that show city officials and the building’s owner were warned that 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 facade “appear ready to fall imminently” and could be a safety hazard.
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 facade is currently about to topple outward.”
Despite the warnings, city officials did not order some 50 tenants to 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.
The city confirmed Thursday that its chief building official, Trishna Pradhan, resigned earlier this week in the aftermath of the collapse. Pradhan had visited the building on May 25, and erroneously reported it had “passed” an inspection in notes in the city’s online permitting system, Oswald said.
Pradhan got back into the system on Tuesday – after the collapse – and tried to change the inspection result to “incomplete” but a technical glitch instead listed the outcome as “failed,” he said.
Oswald said “incomplete” is the correct status since the repair work had not been finished, and the glitch has been corrected.
Oswald said the error was administrative, “but the magnitude of the situation and the error that was made” led to Pradhan’s resignation.
Matson promised to improve inspections and to investigate what happened.
Later in the day, the city said in response to an open records request that Pradhan had resigned voluntarily and not in lieu of termination. Under Iowa law, it is a confidential personnel matter and the city is not required to explain the departure.
Andrew Wold, the building’s owner, released a statement dated Tuesday saying “our thoughts and prayers are with our tenants.” County records show his company, Davenport Hotel, L.L.C., acquired the building in 2021 in a deal worth $4.2 million.
Records show that several bricks fell from the building’s facade in 2020 after a severe wind storm.
As the building deteriorated, tenants repeatedly complained 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 leakage from 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 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.
The documents released Wednesday outline numerous other concerns raised about the building by engineers, a utility company and city officials. Among them, 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. 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.
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.”
City inspectors monitored progress at the site and learned Feb. 28 that “the west wall has collapsed into the scaffolding.”