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12 Die as Chicago Apartment Porch Gives Way

At least 57 are injured when a third-floor deck packed with partygoers falls and crushes people on the balcony below.

June 30, 2003|John Beckham and Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO -- Twelve people died and at least 57 were injured Sunday when a third-floor apartment porch collapsed under the weight of summertime partygoers, taking down the two porches below, authorities and witnesses said.

The second-floor balcony also held revelers.

The wood porches and the people -- many of them college students and friends from high school -- smashed to the ground shortly after midnight in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where thousands of young people live among families in two- and three-floor buildings converted into apartments.

As many as 50 people had crowded onto the third-floor porch, officials said.

Neighbors and patrons from a nearby tavern were the first to arrive after the accident. They found the dead and the injured pinned beneath lumber, much of which had fallen into a stairwell and was spread across the lawn.

Rick Frommeyer was walking his dog when he passed the apartment building about 12:15 a.m.

"I could see the porches were full; they were crowded," he said. "About five minutes later, all hell broke loose -- screaming, chaos, kids running. There were people lying on the ground all around. There was a fair amount of blood."

As police and ambulances began pulling up, Frommeyer sprinted to the nearby Burwood Tap and, along with customers and bartenders, returned with ice and a linen bathroom towel roll, cutting the cloth with a key to make bandages.

Eleven people were pronounced dead at the scene, city officials said, and another person died at a nearby hospital. Ambulances transported 45 injured people to several hospitals, and at least a dozen more were taken by friends or family members for treatment.

Most of those killed had been on the second-floor porch and were crushed by the weight from above, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

The porches' wood, brick and fittings were so compacted from the collapse that, after using chain saws to free people, firefighters had to employ a thermal-imaging device that detects variations in heat to make sure they hadn't missed anyone.

Natalie Brougham, 22, who lives down the street, was on the third-floor porch when it gave way.

"There were people covering me," she told Associated Press. "It was pitch-black and people were yelling, 'I'm dying.' I was assuming I was going to die. I guess I got lucky and only had two or three people on top of me."

Several residents of the six-unit building had combined to throw a party on the warm summer night, survivors and witnesses said, and partygoers wandered from apartment to apartment, porch to porch -- a common scene in the trendy neighborhood, which is surrounded by nightclubs and eateries. Many of those at the party had been students together at one of the city's preeminent high schools, New Trier.

The building where the accident occurred was built in 1886. Like many of the brick row houses in Chicago, it was divided from a single-family dwelling into apartments. And like many buildings in the area, wood stairs and porches had been added.

Such porches are common in Chicago, offering people living in the narrowly spaced row houses something of an urban yard, a place for outdoor gatherings. On any weekend night, dozens of porch parties take place in Lincoln Park, making music and laughter part of the neighborhood's background noise.

Unlike public buildings and areas, the capacity on the porches is not regulated.

In May, Norma Reyes, the city's building commissioner, issued a "porch safety advisory."

"Every summer, porches collapse due to large parties and gatherings being held on unstable porch systems," Reyes said in a news release. "As a result, many people are seriously injured."

On Sunday, speaking near the collapse, Reyes said she did not know whether the porch had been structurally sound and promised "a thorough investigation into the history of this building." Still, she and other officials went out of their way to say they think the crowd was simply too big.

"It appears to be a case of just too many people in a small space," said Fire Commissioner James Joyce.

The collapse was the city's second crowd-related disaster this year. In February, 21 people were crushed to death in the overcrowded E2 nightclub after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight and hundreds of panicked people tried to flee down a single narrow stairway.

Carol Bibat, who has lived in the Lincoln Park neighborhood for 14 years, drove by the party with her husband, Ben, about midnight.

"We commented that there were too many people on the porch and it did not look safe," Carol Bibat said. "But it was a nice party. There was music, but not loud, not rowdy. If your kids were at it, you probably would not have worried."

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