COLUMBIA — A Columbia firefighter died after responding to a collapsed balcony walkway early Saturday at an MU-run apartment complex.
Shortly after 4 a.m., the floor of the second-story balcony walkway at University Village apartments collapsed at one of the buildings, which are near the southwest corner of Providence and Stewart roads.
Lt. Bruce Britt, a 23-year veteran of the Columbia Fire Department, died from injuries sustained while trying to evacuate residents.
Around 4:15 a.m. Saturday, MU student Ghazwan Alwan said he woke up to a loud crashing noise. He thought something had fallen on the roof of his new apartment, maybe an animal from the surrounding woods. Other residents said they thought it might be an earthquake.
But when Alwan looked out his window, he saw that the walkway of his building had partially collapsed.
"I saw the sparks. Almost everything was hanging down," Alwan said.
Fire trucks and emergency personnel arrived about three minutes after Alwan called 911, he said.
The balcony walkway fully collapsed while Lt. Britt was on it, Alwan said. He lost consciousness and was taken to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on Saturday morning.
"He was walking on the hanging part. I tried to warn him," Alwan said. "Then he suddenly fell down, and he didn’t wake up."
Lt. Britt is the first Columbia firefighter to be killed in the line of duty since 1986.
MU spokesman Christian Basi said he thinks there were 18 people in the 12-unit building at the time. No residents were injured during the collapse.
Firefighters evacuated the building. Residents on the second floor had to climb out of their windows to go down ladders behind the building. They had only a few minutes to put on clothes and gather essential belongings before evacuating. Most residents left their car keys in the building.
"The firemen told us to put on clothes and to get out," resident Victor de Jesus said. De Jesus lives in the apartment with his girlfriend and woke up to a firefighter banging on his door. When he opened the door, he saw the concrete floor of the walkway lying on the ground by his door.
"We have just the clothing we had on," he said. "I have my phone. There were some people who didn’t even have their phones."
Most residents waited in the complex's nearby laundry room while emergency crews and MU Department of Residential Life officials assessed the situation.
In the laundry room, Residential Life Director Frankie Minor told residents it would be at least several hours, and possibly days, before they could get back into their apartments. Their options for temporary accommodation included staying in on-campus residence halls, hotels or MU-owned apartments.
Minor also told the residents that the Department of Residential Life would arrange for residents to eat at the dining halls for the next few days and ensure that they have everything they need at least until they can go in and retrieve essential belongings.
De Jesus said that he will go to the Hampton Inn and that other residents are going to residence halls on campus or to other hotels. He said one family will stay elsewhere in University Village because they have children who need to take the school bus every morning.
At the time he spoke to residents, Minor said the university was still trying to assess what happened and when, if ever, residents would be allowed to move back into the building.
In a statement issued about 8:30 a.m. Saturday, MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said he was "deeply grateful to City of Columbia firefighters and University of Missouri Police Department officers for their rapid response to the incident that occurred early this morning at University Village Apartments.
"Because of their quick and effective response, no residents were injured, and all are being moved to alternate locations," Loftin said in the release.
In a Saturday press conference, Loftin announced that MU Residential Life facilities were inspected for safety after the collapse. He also announced that MU had hired a structural engineering firm to check on the safety of all buildings leased and owned by MU starting Monday.
Basi said he did not know when the building at University Village had last been inspected before the collapse but that he has requested the information.
"In addition to the investigation into the cause of the collapse here, we are also inspecting all the other buildings in the complex," Basi said.
Vertical supports have been placed under all of the walkways at University Village, Basi said.
University Village, a complex of MU-run apartments for older students and families, is located near the southwest corner of Providence and Stewart roads. The "structural emergency" occurred in building 707.
The complex was constructed in 1956 and houses students with children, married students, single graduate students and students older than 21.
It is one of four aging complexes that the Department of Residential Life has considered renovating or rebuilding since 2008, according to a 2012 Missourian article.
At that time, Minor told the Missourian that he has spoken with private developers about rebuilding the complex but that it's been a struggle to find a financially feasible way to do so.
Former Missourian reporter T.J. Thomson contributed to this story.
Supervising editor is Edward Hart.