COLUMBIA, MO - A 23-year veteran firefighter was killed Saturday while helping evacuate students from a University of Missouri-run apartment complex after a second-story walkway collapsed, according to Columbia Fire Department officials.
Columbia Fire Chief Chuck Witt said at a news conference that Lt. Bruce Britt became entrapped beneath rubble while responding to the collapse at University Village Apartments and was pronounced dead at University Hospital.
Firefighters responded at 4:45 a.m. to a structural collapse at the central Missouri apartment complex, Witt said. Some second-floor residents had to climb out of their windows and down ladders to get to safety. No residents were injured.
The chief didn't provide Britt's age and declined to answer questions after making a statement, saying his priority Saturday was helping the firefighter's family and the rest of his department cope with the tragedy.
University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin expressed his condolences to Britt's family and said structural engineers had been brought in to examine the building. He said that all other Residence Life facilities owned by the university were being inspected and that on Monday all of the university's buildings would be examined to ensure structural integrity.
The apartment complex, built in 1956, houses students with children, married students, single graduate students and students older than 21.
University student Ghazwan Alwan told reporters he woke up to a loud crashing noise at 4:15 a.m. and thought something had fallen onto the roof. When he looked out his window, he saw that the walkway had collapsed.
"I saw the sparks. Almost everything was hanging down," Alwan said.
He said fire trucks and emergency personnel arrived about three minutes after he called 911.
Alwan told the Columbia Missourian that he saw the firefighter fall and appear to lose consciousness. He said the man was taken away by an ambulance.
"He was walking on the hanging part," he said. "Then he suddenly fell down, and he didn't wake up."
Loftin praised the work of Britt and his fellow firefighters for making sure no residents were injured after the collapse.
"My deepest gratitude goes out to everyone who assisted during this emergency."
The apartment complex has 12 units, said Christian Basi, a university spokesman. He said he thinks there were 18 people in the building at the time of the collapse.
Evacuees said they had only a few minutes to put on their clothes and leave, and many of them forgot their car keys or cellphones.
Frankie Minor, residential life director, said the university was trying to assess when, if ever, residents would be allowed to move back into the building.
Minor told residents it could be several hours -- and possibly days -- before they could get back into their apartments to retrieve belongings. The university gave residents the option of staying in on-campus residence halls, hotels or university-owned apartments.