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Boards stretch across the sliding glass doors of a fourth-floor apartment where a balcony collapsed early Saturday, injuring five people. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

Researcher: Deck collapses a 'seemingly endless' issue in U.S.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Two weeks ago, a balcony dropped off the fourth floor of a Grand Forks apartment complex, sending five people plummeting to the sidewalk below. City officials say they still have not determined what caused the balcony to fall and there are no plans to release the names or conditions of victims.

Similar tragedies happen across the country more commonly than anyone would expect, according to Frank Woeste, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech who has been studying balcony collapses since 2001.

“The deck/balcony collapse issue is seemingly endless, one per day in the news lately,” he said.

From 2001-2016, a study by Woeste and Bruce A. Barker showed that there were 239 major deck or balcony collapses reported through the news. An analysis from the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated 4,600 emergency room visits were associated with deck collapses and 1,900 more were tied to porch failures during those years.

The study showed the majority of collapses resulted in injuries, but not deaths.

Woeste said collapses generally are caused by a combination of factors, ranging from design to construction. He said, after looking at a photo of the Garden View Drive apartments, that angled supports underneath the balconies were a red flag because the design is known for problems. He said the angle places an outward thrust on fasteners that connect the deck to the building.

In Grand Forks, first responders were already at the McEnroe Place apartments early in the morning of June 8, responding to a jammed elevator. Five people standing on a fourth-floor deck were injured as the deck fell from the side of the building.

In every case he’s examined, Woeste said the collapses are preventable — he said more frequent inspections easily could detect flaws or areas of concern before the problem reaches a literal breaking point.

The problem, however, lies with the fact that inspections and repairs are not mandated by government bodies and are instead optional for property owners.

Property management from the McEnroe Place said the property is inspected yearly, but details were not provided about the inspection. The property is owned by Edgewood Real Estate Investment Trust but managed by Investors Management & Marketing. Messages to an IMM supervisor were not returned this week, and Edgewood declined to comment, aside from a prepared statement while the investigation is ongoing.

City Inspector Tom Franklin said property management and owners have hired a private structural engineer to examine the building and determine what caused the collapse. He said, in the immediate days following the incident, that rotten wood, structural failure and weight overload may have contributed to the accident. The balcony is 18 inches deep.

The structural engineer evaluated the property on Wednesday, Franklin said, but there is not yet an official cause determined for the balcony failure.

The 67-unit apartment building on Garden View Drive was up to code in 2009, Franklin said, though codes change. Also, it’s difficult to tell if the structure would meet standards now, a decade later. When a code changes, buildings are not required to modify structures to meet the new standards.

Franklin previously said it would be difficult to detect a structural failure during an inspection.

“Something like that, the deck that was on there, the components wouldn’t have been something we were able to see because they were covered up with metal,” he said. “They have metal sheeting on it, which would have prevented us from seeing structural problems at that point.”

Franklin initially said there was rotten wood where the balcony connected to the apartment that may have contributed to the collapse. Issues with material, waterproofing and the way wood balconies are fastened to the building can sometimes leave room for moisture to seep in and cause decay.

Woeste recommends property owners have decks inspected annually by a person who’s knowledgeable in spotting decay and other safety issues in external structure attachments.

Laws changed in California following a deadly 2015 collapse in Berkeley, Woeste said. Apartment complexes are now required to undergo structural inspections on load-bearing exterior elements every six years. North Carolina recently implemented rental property regulations, also, Woeste said.