55 hurt after floor collapses at Seminole Grand penthouse in Tallahassee, Florida

1:01 PM, Oct 22, 2012   |    comments
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Tallahassee, Florida (Tallahassee Democrat) -- City officials are hoping for answers today after a party at the Seminole Grand penthouse turned into a scene of chaos when the floor collapsed, sending guests plummeting into the clubhouse below.

Panicked screams were heard by neighbors at about 1:20 a.m. Sunday when the floor gave way. Fifty-five people were injured, including many who fell through the floor.

Officials have not determined why the floor collapsed in the four-bedroom apartment, located inside the complex's clubhouse in the 1500 block of Tharpe Street. Officials, including city inspectors, are scheduled to continue work Monday to learn what happened.

Estimated damage to the apartment is about $250,000. About 100 party-goers are thought to have been in the apartment at the time of the collapse, based on witness accounts, said Tallahassee Fire Department spokesman Lt. Mike Bellamy. Clean-up crews were on the scene, clearing out debris and replacing shattered glass around the clubhouse by noon Sunday.

Just after the floor collapsed, onlookers, neighbors and those at the party said they couldn't shake the images of bodies piled on top of each other and the panicked faces of those stuck on the second floor waiting for help to arrive.

Queen Davis, a 19-year-old Florida A&M University junior, said the scene was like something out of the horror movie series "Final Destination."

"It was like riding a roller coaster with no seat belts," Davis said. "I was hanging onto a couch, trying not to fall through the floor."

Bystanders crowded the streets following the collapse. Seminole Grand residents were directed to the back entrance by the nearby Winn Dixie on Tharpe Street.

The number of injuries grew from an initial estimate of 30 to 35 to about 55 by Sunday afternoon. Officer Anitra Highland, a Tallahassee Police Department spokeswoman, said none of the injuries were life-threatening. She said the majority were "broken bones and sprains."

Davis was visibly shaken following the incident. She wandered around Seminole Grand's front entrance, wrapped in a pink blanket until 3 a.m. searching for her keys and wallet. In a dash to escape, she grabbed her cellphone and wore two different shoes, later not knowing who owned the flip-flop on her right foot.

She lost her original shoe while hanging on to the couch for dear life.

"Imagine you're just with your friends partying and next you're wondering if you're going to make it out of there," she said, adding she was experiencing stiffness in her right leg just below the calf.

The large number of people at the party is a common occurrence, said Katherine Casey, 21, who lives in Seminole Grand. She said the complex is well known as a party destination. When she first heard loud noises, Casey assumed they were screams from a drunken party-goer.

"The only thing I could describe this as is total chaos," she said. "At first, I thought it was just drunk screams, but then I heard the screams for help. Then I heard screams of fear. There was total fear on peoples' faces."

Bellamy said StarMetro buses were diverted to the scene to help with patient transport to both Capital Regional Medical Center and Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. The buses were not needed, though 12 people were transported to the hospitals through Leon County EMS.

"Due to the high number of patients, a mass-casualty plan was exercised and all responding agencies worked under a unified command to mitigate the incident safely and efficiently," Bellamy said in a statement.

Officials with Seminole Grand declined to comment until they could assess which residents were injured in the collapse. Bellamy said the collapse damage includes some water damage from a broken water main.

Seminole Grand was built in 1995 and is made up of nearly 40 buildings on 44 acres. The property is operated by Paradigm Property Management Team LLC, a corporate entity of Gainesville-based multi-family residential developer Nathan S. Collier. Amy Stewart, a regional manager with Paradigm, said residents would be contacted first and statements to the media should be made today.

Letters regarding the incident went out to Seminole Grand residents Sunday afternoon.

The penthouse layout consists of a four-bedroom apartment with a common area above the clubhouse, Bellamy said. The common area was where the floor collapsed. Seven people were trapped on the second level and were evacuated with a ladder truck.

Michelle Bono, assistant to the city manager, said the building is being inspected. City staffers began pulling 500 pages of permitting information Sunday afternoon. Details on inspection history may be known today, Bono said.

"If there were any inspection issues, they would have been addressed prior to the issuing of a Certificate of Occupancy," Bono said in an email to the Tallahassee Democrat. "That being said, they are reviewing all of the permitting. And just like any other building, once a (certificate of occupancy) is issued, the city does not go back out to that property unless a new permit is requested."

Davis was among many searching for answers following the collapse. Bystanders who had friends at the party were waiting for any information they could receive until crews started to leave the scene around 3 a.m.

Jessica Mantekas was outside with a few friends asking police what was going on. Dozens of police cars were used to block the front entrance of the complex for several hours, so she and her friends had to walk.

"I'm just scared because my roommate was there and I haven't been able to get a hold of her," she said at the time. "It's been a couple of hours. I was just trying to get home and I saw cops blocking the entrance. I just asked somebody on the side what was going on."

Mary Milton, who has lived across the street from Seminole Grand for four years, said she went outside to see what happened. She said she could hear loud screams from her property. When Milton looked outside, she said "people were lying on top of each other" bloody and visibly injured.

"You couldn't help but hear it," Milton said of the screams. She described the scene, roped off by police, and said, "I have never seen so many police in my life."

Despite the collapse happening right in front of her building, Casey said she still feels safe at Seminole Grand. She praised how quickly first-responders reacted. By the time she was prepared to call the police, cars were already on scene, blocking the road and assessing the damage, she said.

"It was completely chaotic," she said. "I wanted more information but I didn't want to pester the police. I feel safe though. I feel like I'm OK."

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