WAUKESHA, Wis. — Investigators are working to stabilize a condominium in Waukesha after learning there was a chance it could collapse Thursday night. Residents were evacuated and will not be allowed to return to their units for the foreseeable future.
In an update Friday evening, a contractor told TMJ4 News that no one will be able to live in the building again and that it will need to be demolished. Residents will be allowed to return to the condo on Saturday, four at a time and only for 10 minutes, to grab anything they can and get out. This is the same contractor who told authorities the building was in danger of collapsing.
Waukesha Fire Chief Steve Howard and City Administrator Kevin Lahner held a press conference regarding the incident Friday afternoon. They had previously released a summary of how they became aware that the large building could collapse at any moment, threatening the lives of 65 residents in 48 condo units.
Howard said the city had been working with an engineer to address issues at the building when he received an unsettling phone call Thursday afternoon.
"They had been discussing some conditions and identified a condition that was immediately dangerous to life and health meaning that hey, it was unsafe to be in the building that collapse could occur at any at any time," Howard said.
The fire chief said he had the engineer clarify the message before activating the emergency operations center to begin evacuation.
The structure is called the Horizon West Condominium Building, located just south of the city's downtown area, built in 1966. The fire chief called the building's design "unique" and that they are not aware of any similar buildings with structural issues.
On the chance the building could collapse, two neighboring properties, at 323 N. West Ave. and 307 N. West Ave., were also evacuated Thursday night.
Fire Chief Howard described the discovery of imminent collapse like "peeling an onion," as the condo association that owns the building, as well as the fire department slowly learned of more issues with the building's construction.
"On behalf of the city, our heart goes out to the families that are involved with this issue. Obviously, it's not a good situation for anyone at all," said Administrator Kevin Lahner.
The fire chief said in a strange way a previous windstorm that damaged the Carroll University area and peeled soffit off the condo helped exposed issues that probably would not have been detected until something "catastrophic" would have happened with a balcony.
Howard explained the issues centered around a water problem and rust impacting structural columns.
The chief continued that it is the fire department's duty to check buildings every year for fire prevention. That duty is mandated by the state of Wisconsin. But there is no annual check-up for a building's structural integrity - unless a weakness is apparent to fire inspectors.
The building is temporarily shored, officials said. A long-term solution to prevent collapse and possibly allow residents back in is still in the works.
Future for residents
Residents are absolutely devastated that they'll no longer be able to call the Horizon West Condominium their home. And now, they're stuck with the difficult task of finding another place to live.
"Today it hit me that I am now homeless," said Jon Glazer.
These were words that Jon Glazer never thought he'd say. That was until today, after he and 64 other residents who lived inside the Horizon West Condos learned they'd no longer be able to come back home.
"A lot of us are going to be suffering. A lot of us," said Glazer.
During a meeting Friday afternoon, residents learned that the building would have to be demolished after contractors determined that it was uninhabitable.
"It simply is not safe to live in at this point," said Steve McGuire, president of McGuire Contractors.
McGuire says the condo association hired him nearly two years ago after they noticed a problem with the building's balconies. But little did he know he'd be uncovering a much bigger problem.
"As we exposed the structural steel in the building we found that the steel in areas had been compromised and it was not in good condition. The balconies eventually would have fallen off the building," said McGuire.
Now families are left scrambling trying to figure out what to do next.
"I bought and used everything I had to buy the condo, and now I'm going to be homeless. I'm trying to survive at this point," said David Secor.
But even so, some residents are still trying to find a reason to smile.
"This is the holiday season, I'm not going to let this bring me down. We've had enough problems with COVID and everything else so this isn't going to be the thing that does me in. I don't know how all of this is going to play out, but this is all I can ask from people, pray for us. Pray for us," said Glazer.
Families will be able to come back to the condo Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. to get some additional items. Four people will be allowed in at a time, and they'll only have 10 minutes to grab what they can.
Statement on building's structure
On Friday, officials provided a statement regarding the evacuation. Waukesha's Chief Building Inspector found the condo building to be unfit for human occupancy effective immediately Thursday afternoon, according to the Office of the Mayor.
After learning of the multiple structural problems, Chief Howard and city leaders immediately evacuated the residents.
Officials say in June of 2020, due to a complain about the conditions, residents were ordered not to use the balconies at the condo. The condo association was ordered to conduct and engineering analysis and remedy the situation.
There were additional inspections throughout 2020 and 2021.
By Sept. 21, the city ordered fencing to be installed around the building due to the worsening condition of the balconies and falling debris, officials say.
By October, the Horizon West Condominium Association began removing the balconies.
Officials say the removal of the balconies revealed further deficiencies of the structural frame and columns. Additional inspections occurred by the Fire Department, as well as a third party independent structural engineer, and the engineer for the building throughout November.
On Tuesday, Nov. 30, a preliminary structural report revealed deficiencies in the load-bearing structure of the building, which ultimately led to the conclusion that the building was unsafe to remain occupied.
As of Friday, residents have been evacuated and the building is now secured, officials say. A total of 65 individuals were evacuated and 23 rooms were provided by the Salvation Army for temporary housing. The Red Cross is also providing meals and health resources for the residents. Red Cross is also assessing potential emergency housing needs for the days ahead.
Friday morning, the city and all parties have reviewed a proposed plan to provide immediate temporary shoring to support and stabilize the structure so there is no imminent collapse.
Aid to residents and reaction
Officials say the Salvation Army of Waukesha will assist families with immediate housing needs.
"We understand the impact this has the families that are being affected by this decision, but the public safety is of the utmost importance," the Waukesha Fire Department said in a statement.
A woman who has been living at the condo for six years shared her experience.
"I got a call from my boyfriend because we live together and he said we have 15 minutes to get out," Alicia Halvensleben said. "I was able to get our cat out and I don't know if I have socks, but I'm pretty sure I have my Packers jersey. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get back kind of a deal so we got as much out as we could."
Police sent those evacuated to a nearby Baymont hotel for the night on Thursday, as organized by the Salvation army.
As of noon, structural shoring on the building was installed.