A 23-year veteran firefighter was killed Saturday while helping evacuate students from a University of Missouri-run apartment complex after a second-story walkway collapsed, according to Columbia Fire Department officials.
Columbia Fire Chief Chuck Witt said at a news conference that Lt. Bruce Britt became entrapped beneath rubble while responding to the collapse at University Village Apartments and was pronounced dead at University Hospital.
Firefighters responded at 4:45 a.m. to a structural collapse at the complex, Witt said. Some second-floor residents had to climb out of their windows and down ladders to get to safety. No residents were injured.
The chief didn’t provide Britt’s age and declined to answer questions after making a statement, saying his priority Saturday was helping the firefighter’s family and the rest of his department cope with the tragedy.
Columbia officials issued a statement Saturday expressing their sorrow and noting that Britt’s wife also works for the city.
“The City of Columbia family is devastated by this tragic loss of one of our own,” City Manager Mike Matthes said.
Flags on all city buildings will be flown at half-mast for 30 days in the firefighter’s honor, he said.
University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin expressed his condolences to Britt’s family and said structural engineers had been brought in to examine the building. He said that all other Residence Life facilities owned by the university were being inspected and that on Monday all of the university’s buildings would be examined to ensure structural integrity.
The apartment complex, built in 1956, houses students with children, married students, single graduate students and students older than 21.
Residential Life Director Frankie Minor, in a story published in The Columbia Missourian in December 2012, said his department had explored renovating or rebuilding four aging complexes known as University Student Apartments, which includes University Village, since 2008. A lack of financing prevented either option from taking place, he said.
Minor was not available for comment Saturday afternoon. A telephone message left with the Residential Life office was not immediately returned.
Leaky windows, cracked ceilings and chipped paint are common complaints about the complex, the newspaper reported in the 2012 story. But it also said the apartments are close to campus, have a day care for children of residents, and cost under $500 for a two-bedroom apartment.
On Saturday, university student Ghazwan Alwan said he woke up to a loud crashing noise at 4:15 a.m. and thought something had fallen onto the roof. When he looked out his window, he saw that the walkway had collapsed.
“I saw the sparks. Almost everything was hanging down,” Alwan told the newspaper.
He said firetrucks and emergency personnel arrived about three minutes after he called 911.
Alwan said he saw the firefighter fall and appear to lose consciousness. He said the man was taken away by an ambulance.
“He was walking on the hanging part,” he said. “Then he suddenly fell down, and he didn’t wake up.”
It was unclear when residents would be able to return to their apartments, even briefly enough to gather personal items such as cellphones and car keys, said Christian Basi, a university spokesman. Basi said about 18 people were in the building at the time of the collapse.
“We may ask them to make a list of the belongings they need and have a professional go into the buildings and get them,” Basi said.
It’s also possible the building will be declared safe and residents will be able to go back into their apartments, he said.
In the meantime, the university gave residents the option of staying in on-campus residence halls, hotels or university-owned apartments.