Iowa Building’s Flaws Were Well Documented Before Deadly Collapse

The warnings about the old brick building on Main Street just kept coming.

There was an engineer’s report in February about a compromised wall. There was another report on May 24 noting that large patches of a brick facade “appear ready to fall imminently.” And on May 27, there was a 911 call asking emergency crews to check a side of the structure that seemed to be bulging.

Over months, assessments were written, work permits were issued and some repairs were made. Still, as alarm grew and complaints mounted, people were allowed to remain in their apartments at 324 Main Street in Davenport, Iowa, a city of 100,000 residents situated about halfway between Des Moines and Chicago.

But last week, a day after that 911 call, a section of the downtown building cleaved off and fell into a parking lot. Three men died, dozens of people were left homeless and half-collapsed apartments became dioramas of lives upended — kitchen appliances teetering near the edges of shorn-off floors, shirts still hung on closet hangers. All the while, residents and their families were left questioning why more was not done to stave off a disaster that, at least in hindsight, seemed all too predictable.

“I want the people who are responsible for this to know they have failed us and they need to be held accountable,” said Desirée Jane Banks, who had two children with Branden Colvin Sr., 42, a resident of the building who died in its collapse.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa announced that she had asked President Biden to declare an emergency and to send federal help for debris removal and demolition.

When it was built 116 years ago, the six-story Davenport Hotel at 324 Main was a jewel of the growing city, where the economy was shaped in many ways by the Mississippi River, which flows alongside downtown. The hotel became a resting spot for well-heeled travelers that featured “elevators, a dining room, some private baths, and fireproof construction throughout,” according to documents on file with the National Register of Historic Places, where it is listed.

Over time, it was converted into a residential building and became something decidedly less grand. Public records and interviews with several recent residents portrayed an apartment building plagued by maintenance problems, safety issues and complaints that went unaddressed for weeks or months.

Eugene Cyphers, 86, who said he had lived there for two decades, described a rapid decline in conditions in recent years. Homeless people sometimes stayed in the lobby, he said. He described seeing feces on stairs and garbage rotting the halls. For a time this past winter, he recalled, there was no heat.

“We always hoped for a better day,” said Mr. Cyphers, a retired teacher who after the collapse, carrying only his keys, wallet and phone, made it to safety through smoke-filled hallways smelling of gas.

The building was home to a diverse mix of residents — long-timers and new arrivals, young professionals and older adults seeking a fresh start — who appreciated the relatively low downtown rents and bonded over shared disappointment with the building’s upkeep.

Attempts to reach Andrew Wold, the building owner, were not successful, and two lawyers who have represented him in recent years in other matters did not respond to requests for comment.

Terrence Glover said he lived in the building for six years until 2020, when it sustained storm damage. His friend and co-worker, Ryan Hitchcock, 51, whose family described him as a devoted Christian, was among those who died. Daniel Prien, 60, also died in the collapse.

“As the wear and tear issues began to mount, those of us who had the means to move did,” Mr. Glover said. “Unfortunately, some just didn’t have that luxury.”

Toriana Hill, who moved in with her 3-year-old son last fall, said she thought “it was a steal to be downtown in a loft-style apartment for $850” each month. Ms. Hill, a postal carrier, appreciated many aspects of the apartment, and said her neighbors included a journalist, an engineer and several college students.

But from the start, Ms. Hill said, there had been unsettling problems: a toilet that barely flushed, cabinets that did not close, an elevator that repeatedly broke down. A visitor earlier this year noticed falling bricks and cracks near windows and suggested that she move.

Records show that Davenport’s city inspectors were acquainted with problems at the building. More than 140 inspections, complaints or permits related to 324 Main were filed with the city since the start of 2019, according to public records. They included complaints from residents who said they went long stretches without heat or hot water. Davenport officials repeatedly referred to the building as a nuisance property and ordered trash to be removed, including in the weeks before the collapse.

More alarmingly, serious structural issues became apparent. On Feb. 8, a structural engineer made an “emergency site visit” and found a patch of cracked and crumbling brick. The engineer said at the time “that this is not an imminent threat to the building or its residents, but structural repairs will be necessary.” City records show that a permit was issued for repair work, which was completed.

Concerns about the building continued.

On May 24, the same engineer who visited in February returned and warned that a brick facade “looks poised to fall” and “is currently about to topple outward.” A building permit to fix the facade was issued by the city, records show, and work started.

The final warning came roughly 26 hours before the building fell, when an employee of the local chamber of commerce called 911 to report that a colleague told him that the wall was bulging outward and looked dangerous. Records show that firefighters responded and were at the building for about four minutes.

That crescendo of warning, and the absence of more aggressive action to fix the problems, has led to accusations of negligence and calls for justice in recent days.

After the collapse, city officials cited and fined Mr. Wold, the building owner, asserting in court records that he “failed to maintain his building in a safe, sanitary, and structurally sound condition.” No lawyer is listed for Mr. Wold in the case.

Residents have also questioned the city’s role, both before the collapse and after.

The day after the collapse, officials said they were not aware of anyone still stuck in the rubble and that demolition was “expected to commence” soon.

But protesters called for a delay, raising concern that people might remain trapped. A woman inside made her way to a window and was helped out of the building in a bucket ladder, and officials announced that other people were missing. The city called search-and-rescue teams back to the rubble. Days later, the bodies of the three men who died were found.

“It was like the city leaders were trying to hold onto a greased football and they kept fumbling it,” said Broc Nelson, a resident for more than three years who is now staying with family. Mr. Nelson, a bakery worker, said he lost his I.D. and birth certificate in the collapse.

Neither Mayor Mike Matson nor Richard Oswald, the director of the city department that oversees code enforcement, responded to interview requests for this article. In news conferences last week, both men described difficult decisions for the city in the lead-up to the collapse.

Ordering people to vacate their homes is a difficult and serious step, they said.

“It is a line to say it’s so unsafe you have to be kicked out of your home,” Mr. Matson said last week when asked about potentially missed warning signs revealed in documents released by the city. He added: “Believe me, we’re going to look at that again, over and over, and for the rest of my life.”

The collapse on Main Street led to concern about the safety of other old buildings in Davenport. Local officials said they were working to step up inspection efforts on other structures.

Roberto T. Leon, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, said most brick structures from the early 1900s were safe, but that they were built at a time before rigorous building codes. Because of construction techniques that differ from those used today, and because detailed building plans might no longer be available, doing more than a cursory inspection of such structures can be both pricey and time-consuming.

“You have to go in and do materials testing and take a lot of measurements,” Dr. Leon said.

In Davenport, a smattering of residents continued to gather near the unsteady building at the center of downtown, where signs from last week’s protests were still posted on fencing.

With the search over, demolition work was starting in earnest. If workers do not take the rest of the building down, city leaders have said, it will topple on its own.

Mitch Smith covers the Midwest and the Great Plains. Since joining The Times in 2014, he has written extensively about gun violence, oil pipelines, state-level politics and the national debate over police tactics. He is based in Chicago.  @mitchksmith

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