More than 60 people were inside a three-story brick church when the Northeast area building started to shake about 10:45 a.m. Thursday.
Children and staff members attending a three-day vacation Bible school heard chairs and tables tumble in another part of the building at 3200 Independence Ave.
Then a large section of the back wall crumbled, leaving a gaping hole and strands of insulation behind. A cloud of dust billowed into the air.
“At first I thought it was a lot of tables falling over, but then a person ran into our room and told everybody to get out,” said Abigail Arambula, a staff member at the school held by Rios de Agua Viva, which means rivers of living water. “I grabbed my niece and the children at my table, where we had been making piñatas, and took them out. It was very scary.”
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In an apartment building next door, Abdi Nuro was watching television from his couch when he heard the collapse. To him, it sounded like a tornado, or something being blown up. He ran outside and saw children running to safety.
“Some of them were crying,” he said. “They didn’t know what was going on.”
The collapsed area had held a gymnasium, which was empty at the time, a church secretary said.
The 44 children and 19 staff members followed protocol and evacuated safely, said Norma Cedillo, the pastor’s secretary.
Some of the children had been playing with balloons when they felt the floor start to shake, one mother said.
“We had reports of people having to climb up the rubble in order to get out of the church,” said Battalion Chief James Garrett of the Kansas City Fire Department. “It’s amazing that no one got hurt in there.”
After evacuating, the children lined up across the street and watched firefighters and police seal off the building. Church staff members quickly helped emergency responders determine that everyone had gotten out safely.
Adults escorted the children, who held hands as they walked in a line, to nearby Independence Boulevard Christian Church, where some ate hot dogs while waiting for parents to pick them up. Three of the children were celebrating birthdays, so staff members at the church handed over some cake.
“We sang, and a lot of the children seemed to be in good spirits,” said Elke Flaharty, a ministry associate at the church.
Cedillo said she thought the heavy rain from Wednesday night caused the gutters to clog and the top-heavy building to collapse. The church has used the building since its inception 13 years ago. She said it’s inspected every year and estimated the last inspection was in 2013.
“It’s an old building,” Cedillo said.
The third floor contained a gym, classrooms and a kitchen. The second floor had a balcony and offices. The first floor housed the sanctuary.
“I am very sad,” Arambula said. “I’ve worked there for many years, and it’s sad to see the building come down.”
Emergency workers notified the city’s dangerous buildings department, which ordered the building torn down Thursday. Previous inspections had revealed no major structural issues, city records show.
The church’s only way forward is to find a new building, Cedillo said.
Fire crews evacuated a building, including apartments, immediately north of the church as a precaution. The Kansas City chapter of the American Red Cross helped two families displaced by the evacuation.