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Packed Balcony Collapses; 1 Dead, 20 Hurt

May 19, 1997| From Associated Press

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A second-floor balcony filled with people seeking a good view of the University of Virginia's graduation ceremonies collapsed Sunday, killing one person and injuring about 20.

The balcony of the columned, red-brick building designed by Thomas Jefferson gave way 15 minutes before the commencement got underway at 10 a.m. on the university's central lawn.

Those on the balcony of the faculty home fell about 15 feet onto a brick walkway. Many of the injured had been standing on the walkway beneath the balcony, said Leonard Sandridge, a university vice president.

Twenty people were treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center. One person died during emergency surgery. A second person who was in critical condition also required surgery.

The identities of the victims and the nature of the injuries were not immediately available.

There were about 15 people on a 15-by-10-foot section of the balcony that began slipping away from an iron support rod anchored to the roof overhead, witnesses said. The person who died was among those who fell from the balcony, said Mary Detmer, who lives in the home. Three or four people got off the section before it collapsed, and 25 people were on another part of the balcony.

"You could see the floor rippling and waving as it was falling. I saw a woman losing her balance and flip over the railing," said Debbie Mahone, 45, of Richmond, who was on the balcony to watch a family friend graduate.

"It felt like an earthquake under your feet," said her son, 12-year-old Robert Mahone. Neither Robert nor his mother were injured.

The rusted support rod appeared to have snapped, leaving only a knifelike, jagged end. It was part of the original building, which was completed in 1822.

Sandridge said the accident "appears simply to be a physical failure."

None of the injured were graduates, and commencement continued as scheduled.

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