More than two dozen people were inside a South Anchorage gym for a fitness competition Friday evening when the roof abruptly collapsed, killing one person and trapping two others.
Authorities said Saturday the cause of the roof collapse is still under investigation. One of the those trapped was taken to the hospital Friday night with undisclosed injuries, while the other was treated at the scene, officials said. No others appeared to be unaccounted for, owners of the gym and fire officials said Saturday.
Turnagain CrossFit, on East 76th Avenue just east of the Old Seward Highway, was hosting gym members and visitors for the first night of a three-week competition, said Josh Fidler, who co-owns the gym with his wife, Becca Fidler.
Lindsay Gatch had showed up Friday to cheer on friends competing in the event, the CrossFit Open.
“The clock had just run out … like literally seconds before” the collapse, Gatch said in a message. “So it was happy chaos: loud music, people spent in exhaustion, cheers.”
Suddenly, there was a loud noise — one person asked if there had been an earthquake — and then Gatch described what happened next: The ceiling over the back half of the gym “just fell straight to the ground.”
Josh Fidler yelled for everyone to get out. Gatch grabbed her boots and ran outside. Around 35 people were inside the building at the time of the collapse, Fidler said
‘The angst of waiting’
Assistant fire chief Alex Boyd said the Anchorage Fire Department received an initial call just before 5:30 p.m.. The department was at the scene within minutes, he said, with eventually 18 units and approximately 40 firefighters and other staff.
Crews determined three people had been trapped inside, assistant chief Brian Partch said. One was able to get out of the building on their own, and they were treated at the scene and then released, Boyd said.
“It was incredibly surreal,” Gatch said. “We all just stood outside, dumbfounded, as debris filled the air and swirled around us. It was a couple of minutes before we heard that there were three ladies still inside. Thankfully, one was out in five minutes, but then the angst of waiting began.”
Gatch said that fellow gym attendees also went back inside the building to try to rescue those who might have been trapped.
“As the night wore on and you looked around, you saw athletes covered, literally head to toe in debris — not because they had been trapped, but because they’d gone back in to try to help others out,” she said.
Responders eventually located the second individual, who was trapped inside the debris, Boyd said. Firefighters and members of the department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team worked for about an hour to free them, he said. Boyd said he was unable to comment on the condition of the person, just that they were transported immediately to the hospital with their injuries.
The trapped person was able to talk to the first responders, according to Partch.
The third person was found dead inside the building shortly after, Boyd said. Their body was removed from the building around 9 p.m. and taken to the State Medical Examiner’s Office, he said.
Gym co-owner Fidler said they used people’s vehicles to get an accurate head count of everyone in the gym and determine who’d gotten out safely.
“That’s when we finally saw there was another vehicle that nobody was with, and we realized whose it was,” he said.
About a third of the overall building — its north end — was involved in the collapse and experienced significant structural damage. Based on the construction of the building, crews are concerned other areas could be affected. Crews were there Saturday to investigate possible danger to the businesses in other parts of the building.
‘A heavy load’
Heavy snow load during a year of above-average snowfall may have contributed to the collapse, authorities said. They encouraged residents to check the snow loads on their roofs — and to use caution when attempting to remove it.
Boyd said the cause of the collapse won’t be known for several days or weeks, after the building is investigated by structural engineers and inspectors.
According to city property records, the building housing Turnagain CrossFit was constructed in 1979.
Boyd said the fire department hadn’t been made aware of any other roof collapses in Anchorage in recent weeks. Part of the roof at the Palmer Public Library collapsed earlier in the week, and officials speculated that heavy snow load may have been a factor.
“We can speculate that the snow load may have contributed to (the Anchorage) collapse, and I know there’s a lot of concern regarding the snow loads,” he said.
[Palmer library closed indefinitely after roof collapses while family and workers were inside]
On Saturday, the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management shared several tips and guidelines for monitoring snow buildup on roofs, as well as having it removed.
According to the city’s emergency management office, the weight of snow can vary depending on its depth, pack and moisture content. Flat roofs will need more attention when it comes to snow buildup. Older buildings might not meet current code requirements and may not be designed to hold as much snow as newer ones.
Indications that a building may be under stress include cracks in drywall or masonry, as well as popped nails or screws and doors or windows that don’t close properly, according to the city’s guidance. Severe leaks are another warning sign.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also lists several warning signs in an informational flier about snow load safety, including sagging roof members, sagging in ceiling tiles or boars, and popping, cracking and creaking noises.
Removing snow from roofs can be dangerous, and the emergency management office said building owners should “exercise extreme caution” before attempting to remove it themselves. It’s also possible to damage the roof if snow isn’t properly removed.
“If they do have concerns ... they should be working with building engineers,” Boyd said.
People should consider consulting with structural engineers and hiring a licensed roofing company to remove snow, the emergency management office said.
“Each building, location, and even parts of a building have slightly different conditions,” its guidance reads.
If people do choose to remove snow from a roof themselves, city emergency officials suggest working with a partner, and leaving a few inches of snow on the roof to avoid damaging it when using a shovel or rake.
As of Saturday afternoon, authorities had not identified the individual who died. But in an online fundraiser shared Saturday by friends of the family, the organizers described the victim as a wife and mother of three who died in the collapse.
“This is an unfathomable loss for her surviving family members,” they wrote.
Members of a tightknit Anchorage CrossFit community mourned the death of one of their own, and described the tragedy as deeply unsettling.
Fidler said the woman who died had arrived at the gym early on Friday evening after a break from the gym, to catch up with the couple and tell them she was excited to recommit to the gym after the extended time off.
“This athlete, we hadn’t seen in a while, but she’s always remained friends with us throughout everything,” Fidler said.
That night, “she was killing it,” Fidler said. “Honestly she was absolutely crushing it going through the workout.”
A second or two after the workout ended, the roof collapsed.
Kelly Linebarger, owner of a different CrossFit gym in Anchorage, described the outpouring of support as immediate and overwhelming.
Within hours, she said, two online fundraisers had been set up, one for the gym’s owners and one for the family of the woman who died. By Saturday evening, thousands of dollars had been raised.
Gatch, who was inside the gym at the time of the collapse, said that the support and kindness she saw Friday night embodied what she loved about the CrossFit community. It was her first time in five years not competing in the Open — she’s pregnant and on bedrest — but she showed up Friday to support her friends and community.
“Everyone hung around until our friends were found. Other members showed up, wanting to hold vigil with us,” she said. “We’re all there for each other, through the good and the bad. It’s really the most beautiful thing.”