Abbott Loop Community Church leaders scrambled Saturday to cope with the dramatic auditorium roof collapse Friday night that one witness said looked like a tornado while it was happening.
The damage put the church's building at the corner of Abbott Road and Lake Otis Parkway out of commission for now, said Frank Curry, one of the pastors. The congregation will meet temporarily at Anchorage City Church, he said.
"We give big thank-yous for support from the community," Curry said. "It's overwhelming."
The roof crumbled and the building caved in over the church auditorium, the space where the congregation of 450 to 500 gather to worship every Sunday, Curry said.
No one was in the auditorium at the time -- shortly after 6 p.m. Friday -- but a sound technician was on his way in, and a group was set to rehearse music there at 6:30 p.m., Curry said. Three men were in a gym in another part of the building but got out safely. They told fire crews that air pressure from the collapse almost blew them over.
The whole building has been posted "unsafe to occupy" by the city until a structural engineer hired by the church determines the safety of the rest of it, said Jim Stubbs, lead structural building inspector for the city. He said the cause of the collapse was likely snow load. It was a flat roof.
Stubbs, whose job is to go to collapses like this one for the city building safety division, happened to be sitting in his vehicle at the Lake Otis Parkway-Abbott Road intersection when the roof came apart.
"All at once I saw the big spruce trees right at the edge of the church start to swirl around, and dust and gray was coming out and I thought man, that's like a tornado," he said. "But it couldn't be a tornado. Then as the air continued to rush out there came the insulation from inside the building, and then the whole thing just collapsed."
"A wall went down across Lake Otis. Unbelievable, it just went down like that," he said.
Stubbs called 911, then went to work with arriving Anchorage Fire Department crews to make sure it was safe for fire crews to go in.
The Fire Department learned no one was trapped. The building utilities were turned off, and the building was turned over to the church, said a Fire Department spokesman.
The northbound lane of Lake Otis was closed until early Saturday so the debris could be secured, Stubbs said.
The entire building "was compromised once that section went down," he said.
The main damage was limited to the west end of the auditorium.
There's water damage from sprinklers in church offices, Curry said.
Stubbs said workers were removing snow from the still-intact east roof of the auditorium Saturday, and the next step would be to shore up the east end.
The first permanent structure for the church was built in 1963, and it had been added on to through the years.
Curry said he was shocked when he heard that it was the auditorium roof that collapsed because that was a more recent addition -- built in 1980.
A work party the previous Sunday had cleared snow off other parts of the roof but left this section alone because it was considered to be in better shape, Curry said.
Stubbs said this year's snow load has increased the likelihood of roof collapses, mainly for flat, commercial-sized roofs like the church's.
"This is my sixth collapse in two weeks," he said. "Most are broken beams and trusses. This is the biggest by far I've ever seen."
As it continues to snow, city building officials recommend people assess their roofs, Stubbs said.
City officials recommend people should watch for snow drifts on roofs, excessive ice buildup, new cracks in ceilings or walls and ice-choked drains.
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4340.