Chicago Balcony Collapse – 2003

Chicago, the windy city, is bitingly cold in winter but breezes from Lake Michigan are very welcome in the heat of summer. Much of the city was built in the 19th century, before the days of air-conditioning, and apartment blocks were usually built with balconies. Unlike New York’s famous metal fire escapes, the Chicago versions were generally built of wood.

In the summer of 2003 a group of young people were holding a large party, using two floors of a block in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side. Most of the guests were in their early twenties and had been friends at High School. As the party got livelier, more and more revelers squeezed their way out onto the balconies to cool off. Just after midnight the overloaded floor of the upper balcony gave way and crashed down, taking the first- and ground-floor balconies with it into the basement area.

When the fire department rescue team arrived they found the distraught survivors desperately trying to dig their friends out from beneath the mound of debris. Partygoers and residents alike stood by in shock as the firemen used chainsaws to cut the injured and dead free from the wreckage.

Subsequent enquiries blamed a combination of overcrowding and structural weakness. When the owner had modernized the block he had renovated the balconies without obtaining specific planning permission. In fact, the old-fashioned balconies were larger than modern regulations allowed and constructed of materials which would nowadays be considered sub-standard. He was fined for his part in the tragedy and ordered to bring balconies on all his properties up to the required standard. Since the Lincoln Park incident, stringent inspections city-wide have gone a long way to reducing the incidence of collapsing balconies.

When: June 29 2003

Where: Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Death toll: 11 people died at the scene and two more in hospital. There were 57 serious injuries.

You should know: The wooden balconies on Chicago’s older buildings are often rotten after years of snow and rain, and used as aces to keep air conditioning units, garden furniture and even paddling pools. Unsurprisingly, disintegration is still not uncommon.

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