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Roof collapse at apartment complex leads to evacuation

September 19, 2018

HUNTINGTON - At least 12 people were forced to evacuate their 11th Avenue apartment complex on Monday after the balcony’s roof caved in under heavy rainfall.

The roof has been a looming problem for more than a year, residents said. The Huntington Development Corporation, a sister nonprofit of the Huntington Housing Authority, which owns the complex, will find residents new apartments elsewhere. A spokeswoman for those organizations said the building has been inspected annually and there had been no indication of a problem with the roof.

The Simms School Apartments, located at 1680 11th Ave., was cordoned off on Monday awaiting structural engineers to give a report. Firefighters cut off gas and electric utilities to the property so emergency crews could enter.

Just after 9 a.m., residents reported hearing a “crackling” sound that progressively got louder.

April Ziegler, who lives on the second floor, said that’s when she started calling both the Huntington Development Corporation and the Huntington Housing Authority.

She called a couple of times before connecting to a maintenance worker who said he was on his way, she said.

“As soon as he got in the building, that’s when I heard a big crash,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said she then ran from door to door, yelling for everyone to immediately get out of the building. She made sure everyone was down the stairs and out the back door.

“That’s when the rest caved in,” she said.

The roof caved into the balcony, bringing down large chunks of rocks to the complex’s entrance area.

Tommie A. Jones, who also lives on the second floor, said it’s a blessing no one was on the balcony at the time of the collapse. Residents normally sit on the balcony to have their tea or coffee and residents have held cook-outs there before, she said.

Jones said she was called to her door by Ziegler’s screams and a fire alarm that went off immediately after the first big crashing sound.

Patti Lemaster, who lives in an apartment facing the balcony, said she heard the cracking sounds Monday morning before calling the Huntington Housing Authority. She noticed the rafters on the balcony were leaning and said she watched the roof cave in. She grabbed her sandals and evacuated before it completely fell down.

Residents said they had previously warned about the roof, which they said had been a problem for more than a year. A large crack was forming that seemed to get worse under rainfall, residents said.

Vickie Lester, president of the Huntington Development Corporation and executive director of the Huntington Housing Authority, said the building is inspected annually and there has been no indication the roof was experiencing problems. They’ve had no issues like this with the building before, she said.

Lester said the residents are working together with the American Red Cross to find temporary housing. They were allowed to return to their rooms for important belongings by Monday evening, she said.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the timeline for repair, residents would be moved to new apartments elsewhere, she said. This will give structural engineers enough time to assess the damage.

The Simms School was built in approximately 1919, operating as an elementary school until it was closed in 1980. It was then turned into an apartment complex.

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

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