PALMER — The Palmer Public Library, a community hub built in 1985 that provides not only books and historical archives but computers for anyone’s use, is closed indefinitely after a partial roof collapse left the building unsafe for occupation.
A family of four was in the children’s section when the ceiling came crashing down in that area just before closing time Wednesday but escaped without serious injury, officials say.
The collapse was reported at about 5:45 p.m. Dispatchers said it was possible people were trapped inside, according to Palmer Fire & Rescue Chief Chad Cameron. About 25 minutes passed before firefighters could confirm no one was inside, at about 6:10 p.m.
The fire department chaplain was called to the scene before it became clear everyone got out, according to Palmer city manager John Moosey.
Inside the building, three library staff saw the collapse but couldn’t see into the children’s section down a few steps to see if the family was safe, library director Beth Skow said Thursday morning. Photos from the inside of the building show a chaotic jumble of bookshelves, torn ceiling tiles and twisted metal. Water from a broken pipe soaks the floor.
“They were potentially trapped in the children’s section where the ceiling came down,” Skow said. “The woman gave staff her baby (and went) to get other children out.”
The staffers, with the baby, evacuated the building through the front doors, she said, while the mother, with her two other children, escaped out an emergency exit. They reunited outside. That’s when staff realized everyone was accounted for.
The full extent of the damage — and any estimate for repairs — wasn’t clear as of Thursday, local officials say. A wall buckled in and out, and the ceiling collapsed and is resting on bookcases. Cracks are visible in the building, so staff aren’t allowed to enter.
The city will need to do a structural analysis to determine exactly what caused the collapse, Moosey said. Fire officials were initially blaming snow loading on that area of the building, combined with its age. Skow said windblown snow tends to pile up in the area that buckled near the front of the building, citing a 5-foot drift near the flagpole.
Asked when the library might reopen, she said, “That’s a moving target at this moment until we know what the structural engineers have to say.”
In the meantime, city and library officials say they are looking for other options to continue to provide at least some of the services the library fulfills, a process Moosey expects to be complicated by the lack of vacant spaces in city limits. It’s expected to take a few weeks just to find a stopgap.
The building is insured, he said, but he expects the cost of repairs to top the amount insurance will pay. The city is approaching state legislators for help.
The city owns and operates the library, which also receives support from a nonprofit called Palmer Friends of the Library that’s the beneficiary of a fundraising concert by Mat-Su Orchestra on Sunday.
One upside to a winter roof collapse, Skow said: Any soaked books or other materials are currently frozen rather than molding, which is the biggest threat they’d face.
But the obvious downside is the sudden loss of a space that’s played a vital role in the community for almost 40 years.
People without internet access or computers could find both in the library, Moosey said. People have loaned artwork and historic books to the library.
“It’s not just buying books,” he said of the recovery ahead. “There potentially are some irreplaceable items and some of those items are not ours.”