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One killed, several injured when balcony collapses at Va. graduation

May 19, 1997

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) _ A second-floor balcony filled with people seeking a good view of the University of Virginia’s graduation ceremonies collapsed Sunday, killing one person and injuring 18.

The balcony of the columned, red-brick building designed by Thomas Jefferson gave way 15 minutes before the commencement got under way at 10 a.m. on the university’s central lawn.

Those on the balcony of a faculty home fell about 15 feet onto a brick walkway. Many of the injured had been standing on the walkway beneath the balcony, said Leonard Sandridge, a university vice president.

Mary Jo Brashear of El Paso, Texas, died in emergency surgery at University of Virginia Medical Center. She was attending the graduation of her grandson.

Seven people were admitted to hospitals, 11 were treated and released.

The injured suffered broken arms, legs and ankles, the university said. One of the injured, a 12-year-old girl, underwent surgery and was in good condition. The others were in fair or good condition.

There were about 15 people on a 15-by-10-foot section of the balcony that began slipping away from an iron support rod anchored to the roof overhead, witnesses said. Among those who fell from the balcony was the person who died, said Mary Detmer, who lives in the home. Three or four people got off the section before it collapsed and 25 people were on another part of the balcony.

``You could see the floor rippling and waving as it was falling. I saw a woman losing her balance and flip over the railing,″ said Debbie Mahone, 45, of Richmond, who was on the balcony to watch a family friend graduate.

``It felt like an earthquake under your feet,″ said her son, 12-year-old Robert Mahone. Neither Robert nor his mother were injured.

The collapse terrified Nita Mayeux, 70, who came from Baton Rouge, La., to see her granddaughter, Toby Campbell, graduate. ``All of a sudden, we heard a crackling and screams. My heart was pumping. You felt like panicking but you knew you had to get out of there.″

The rusted support rod appeared to have snapped, leaving only a knifelike, jagged end. It was part of the original building, designed by Jefferson and completed in 1822.

Sandridge said the accident ``appears simply to be a physical failure,″ and said it probably did not result from too many people being on the balcony.

None of the injured were graduates, and commencement continued as scheduled. There was no mention of the collapse although doctors among the 25,000 people on the expansive lawn rushed to the home and began helping the injured, witnesses and university officials said.

Balconies of the nine other buildings facing the lawn were immediately cleared and were closed until the university finishes its investigation into the accident, a university spokeswoman said.

The buildings surrounding the lawn are part of the original ``academical village″ that Jefferson, the university’s founder, designed at the core of the campus.

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