CINCINNATI – One of the victims described it as a “wooden waterfall.”
A party for about 80 people at a Mount Adams apartment building turned into a frightening fall for the 30 or so outside on two wooden balconies when they collapsed, dropping the partygoers and tons of splintered wood, tables, chairs and debris onto the hillside below.
It happened nearly 38 years ago at 397 Oregon St. – just past midnight on June 17, 1979. The hillside didn’t slip as it did again last week. Instead, witnesses said the highest balcony broke away from the 90-year-old building and wiped out the three balconies beneath it. The lower two were not in use.
Some of the injured said the fall – some 40 to 50 feet depending on which floor balcony they were on – felt like a dream.
Donna Withers, 28, was on the highest balcony on the fourth floor with about 15 to 20 other people.
“I heard the boards cracking. I looked down and saw the porch breaking away from the building,” she said.
As it fell, it crashed through the third-floor balcony where Glen Hall and a dozen or more were gathered.
“I was talking with a couple of girls … the next thing I knew I was falling,” said Hall. “I was just in a daze. It’s the trauma of falling. I was in shock. I was just sitting there and all of a sudden I was flying.”
A building resident, Rick Kelsch, said he heard the rumble and looked out the window in time to see a couple of people fall past his second-floor apartment.
“All you could see was boards and faces going down,” Kelsch said. “The faces looked scared.”
Withers said she had just arrived at the party and was holding a friend’s hand.
“I had a full beer in my other hand and I tried to hold it when the porch fell,” she said. “Crazy things went through my mind, like I wondered if I had insurance. I hoped my face wouldn’t get all cut up.”
Withers said her friend threw his arms around her to protect her as they fell.
“When we hit the ground is when the screaming and yelling started,” she said.
The partygoers fell into nearly total darkness and utter confusion. One said it looked and sounded like a war zone. One woman was buried under boards. The ones who weren’t badly hurt helped the ones who were. Partygoers who had remained safely inside the apartments and residents and neighbors also came to the rescue.
Fire department ambulances and police wagons rushed to the scene, filling Oregon Street from one end to the other with flashing red and blue lights. Rescuers rolled the injured on gurneys down the sidewalk and the vehicles sped off with sirens blaring.
“I must have been unconscious for a while because the first thing I saw was the firemen coming with stretchers,” Withers said. The next thing she saw was her roommate, Debbie, sitting next to her. Debbie was covered in blood, Withers said.
“I asked if she was OK and she said, ‘Yes, I just can’t walk,’” Withers said. “I found out the blood on Debbie was from a person who pulled her out of the wreckage. Then I found out I couldn’t stand up.”
Withers suffered three broken ribs and a punctured lung as well as two black eyes. Her friend had a fractured pelvis. Both were among the 15 admitted to hospitals. A total of 27 people were transported to Good Samaritan, General (now UC Medical Center) and Bethesda.
Three people were admitted in serious condition with internal injuries. Hall had head injuries and broken ribs. Others had broken bones or severe lacerations and puncture wounds from landing on or under wood and debris.
“Everybody was so dirty,” Withers said. “I had beer in my hair. I think the dirt was potting soil from plants that had been on the porches.”
Withers said she lost her diamond earrings in the fall. She said a friend promised to go over the hillside with a metal detector.
One injured woman described a moment of foreboding. She said she had heard a man trying to reassure a woman that it was safe to go out on the balcony.
“One fella kept walking in and out saying, ‘Go on out. It’s safe. Go on out. It’s safe,’ because the girl expressed a little reluctance to go on out there because she’d heard stories about balconies falling and he said, ‘Nah, go on out. It’s safe,’” she said.
City inspectors were on the scene within an hour and returned at daylight but couldn’t immediately determine what caused the top balcony to fail.
The fire marshal said it could have been caused by “the weight of all the people on the porch.” A building inspector said it could have been rot.
It was the second balcony collapse on Oregon Street in 10 months. Three people were hurt the previous Aug. 31 when a porch holding 10 persons collapsed at 417 Oregon.
The city responded to the 397 collapse by ordering immediate inspections of all balconies and porches in Mount Adams. Five two-person teams completed the job in a single day and said they found none in imminent danger of collapsing, though they did issue repair orders to some property owners.
An official in the Buildings and Inspection Department said they didn’t inspect buildings unless they received a complaint or the owner requested a building permit. Mayor Bobbie Sterne said it would be too expensive to do routine inspections.
Several of the injured sued the building owner and settled out of court.