The collapse of the balcony of a second story building at a Presbyterian church camp sent dozens of people to Montana hospitals with injuries that ranged from mild to severe. It made headlines around the country, but dangerous balcony collapses happen more often than most people realize, sometimes resulting in damages awarded to victims. The Glacier Camp balcony collapse follows a similar collapse the year before and was reminiscent of a balcony collapse in Polson that injured more than 70 people in 2004.
Glacier Camp Balcony Collapse Occurs During Memorial
Approximately 50 people had come to Glacier Camp on Saturday, June 17, 2017, to honor William Nickel, a firefighter from Flathead Valley who died in the spring. The group was gathered on the balcony at the Spruce Lodge, one of the buildings at the church-run retreat—unaware of the imminent danger they were facing—when the second-story deck they were standing on gave way.
Glacier Camp is a Presbyterian-run summer camp located on Flathead Lake between Lakeside and Rollins. The camp website touts the Spruce Lodge, stating it was built in 2004 and that it offers 10,000 square feet of deck space, but in pictures following the Glacier Camp balcony collapse, only a few railings and beams remain. The deck floor is either partially or fully collapsed to the ground beneath it. The camp released a statement on June 20, 2017, expressing gratitude to the first responders and asking for prayers for the victims.
Thirty-two people from the memorial, from 3 to 90 years old, were taken to area hospitals following the incident.
Emergency Personnel from Surrounding Areas Responded to Structural Failure
Somers Rural Fire Department was one of the first agencies with crews at the scene, and first responders were quick to call for a mass casualty incident trailer, as well as to ask for all available ambulances in the area to divert to the scene of the Glacier Camp balcony collapse.
The Fire Department confirmed that 32 people were taken to local hospitals for treatment, while Don Bell, the Lake County Sheriff, stated that six of the injured had to be airlifted. Kalispell Regional Healthcare, however, has since confirmed that more than 50 people were injured in the collapse, and said that 36 patients were treated in the Flathead region (nine at North Valley Hospital and 27 at Kalispell Regional Medical Center).
Sheriff Bell said, in an interview with NBC Montana, that it was very clear at the scene of the balcony collapse that serious injuries had occurred.
“When I first got on scene I saw injured people,” Bell said. “I saw the ambulance crews and firefighters triaging people and stabilizing them whether it was with ankle braces, wrapping someone’s knee, or controlling bleeding on someone’s head. The emergency crews did a great job.”
Kalispell Regional Healthcare said in a statement that there were “significant numbers of orthopedic and neurological injuries requiring immediate surgery.” The day following the collapse, two people were still hospitalized in critical condition.
Other emergency personnel that responded to the Glacier Camp balcony collapse included the Rollins Fire Department and ambulance crews from Lakeside and Evergreen. Emergency crews from the neighboring areas of Polson, West Valley, Big Fork, Ronan, and Smith Valley also came to the aid of victims.
Glacier Camp Balcony Collapse Similar to 2004 Polson Building Collapse
A balcony collapsed with 20 people on it on Lakeside Avenue in 2016, according to Somers fire officials, but for most local residents, the Glacier Camp balcony collapse was a stark reminder of a balcony collapse in Polson thirteen years ago. That accident, which occurred over the same lake, saw the deck collapse under about 100 patrons at the Diamond Horseshoe bar and casino. Four people sustained life-threatening injuries in the Polson collapse.
Witnesses to the Polson collapse say that they had speculated on how the deck withstood the number of people on it prior to the incident. An attorney for the Diamond Horseshoe said that the wood on the ledger attaching the balcony to the wall had rotted and that caused the deck to collapse, but that the deck has passed recent inspections.
Balcony Collapses Can Be Easily Caused
One of the most famous balcony collapses in America was a 2015 balcony collapse in Berkeley that killed six people who were attending a 21st birthday celebration. A total of thirteen people fell from the fourth story in the Berkeley collapse. The report released after the Berkeley collapse identified the cause as being unstable materials (from dry rot damage). The Berkeley collapse was the balcony collapse incident that received the most press, but balcony collapses are more common—and can happen more easily—than many people realize.
Balcony collapses injure over 500 people in the U.S. every year, and experts believe that part of the reason they may be so prevalent is that about half of the balconies in the country are not up to building codes. The use of nails in deck construction can also be incredibly dangerous as time passes, as, unlike screws, nails can smoothly pull away and cause collapse. Another common factor is rotted wood, which can easily break. Improperly maintained balconies are especially susceptible to rotted wood.
Officials with the Somers Fire Department say that they are unaware of any maximum capacity balcony regulations in the county. An investigation into the cause of the Glacier Camp balcony collapse is underway.