On Monday morning, hours after part of a century-old apartment building collapsed onto a downtown street, officials in Davenport, Iowa, said they were unaware of anyone still trapped in the rubble.
That afternoon, when broken bricks from the unstable structure left the insides of the blocks exposed, the city announced that the fire department had handed over control of the site and that rebuilding work had begun. They said demolition was “expected to begin” the next day.
But as night fell on Memorial Day, it became clear that Davenport’s leaders were wrong: After protesters converged on the site, rescue crews found an occupant inside the building and pulled her to safety.
“The first question I know people ask is, ‘How did she get there?’ And why wasn’t she found sooner?” Mayor Mike Mattson said Tuesday after officials acknowledged more people remain unaccounted for. “I am completely transparent with you. I do not know. We don’t know.”
The partial collapse of the six-story building near the Mississippi River and its aftermath infuriated residents who questioned whether more could have been done to prevent the collapse and who said the city acted too hastily to announce the rescue operation for completed.
Dozens gathered outside the building on Tuesday, some carrying signs that read things like “Save lives, not property.” At least five people connected to the building remained unaccounted for Tuesday, officials said, including at least two who were believed to have been inside. There are no confirmed deaths.
Both in New York, where the collapse of a parking garage with unresolved safety violations killed one person earlier this year, and in Surfside, Florida, where the collapse of an apartment building in 2021 killed 98 people, there were warnings of trouble in 324 Main Street in Davenport, a city of 100,000 located about halfway between Des Moines and Chicago.
In January, Davenport officials said a complaint about the building prompted the brick work, even though the structure, home to dozens of units and residents, was deemed structurally sound by an outside engineer. Months later, they said, another report led to permits being issued for repairs that were underway at the time of the collapse.
Aaron Aguilar, who visited the scene of the collapse Monday, said he lived at 324 Main and did maintenance there. The structure was heavily damaged by a severe storm in August 2020, Mr. Aguilar said, and some residents had to evacuate for a while afterward. He said the collapse appears to have occurred in a part of the building near the worst damage from the storm.
“I cried this morning when I found out what happened,” Mr. Aguilar said in an interview, adding that he still knows people who live there.
Attempts to reach the property owner Tuesday were unsuccessful. Authorities said an investigation would be conducted.
Officials in Davenport defended their handling of the collapse Tuesday, noting that rescue crews rushed to the site Sunday and rescued several people despite considerable personal risk. In the hours that followed, search and rescue teams from across Iowa, including trained dogs, arrived and found no sign of anyone still buried in the pile.
“Our continuous assessment of what to do or not to do happened in real time,” Mr. Mattson said Tuesday when pressed about why the city had announced plans to begin demolition when it appeared people were still in unknown.
With demolition plans on hold, the next steps remain uncertain. Structural engineers and rescue teams said the building was dangerously unstable, doomed to collapse on its own at some point, and that even carrying out a new cleanup would be dangerous.
“It’s extremely difficult: You can’t run up to a pile of bricks and stones and just start throwing stuff out, as much as we’d like to,” said Jim Morris, assistant fire chief and city fire marshal. “We want to get everybody out, and we want to do it now.”
Later in the day, rescuers entered the building and came out with six cats, two snakes and a lizard, whose owners provided photos and told them where they were.
All the pets appeared to be in good health, said Erica Gunn, executive director of the local humane society, who waited outside to examine the animals. “We are thrilled and relieved,” she said.
But there was no immediate news on the condition of the missing residents.
Amy Anderson, who said her family member Ryan Hitchcock is among the missing, asked for calm and respect as crews scour the building and prepare to resume the search.
“I’m pleading with our community to just let the city do its job right now,” said Ms. Anderson, who described Mr. Hitchcock’s Christian faith and said he would not want anyone to get hurt while searching for him. “It’s a no-win situation, but it’s the best plan of attack and we don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”
Outside the apartment building, Branden Colvin Jr., 18, said he “still has hope” for his father, Brandon Colvin Sr., who remains missing.
The elder Mr. Colvin had returned to the building from work around noon Sunday, visited a neighbor and then returned to his unit to take a nap, family members said.
No one had seen him since. His black Honda Accord remained parked outside.