City condemns home where balcony collapsed

Witness says 15 to 20 people were on balcony before it collapsed

NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. - Less than a day after eight people were hurt in the collapse of a wooden balcony at a Neptune Beach home, the chief of police informed the residents they have 48 hours to vacate the property.

After the Neptune Beach building inspector looked at the home at First and Margaret streets Friday morning, he condemned the building.

"He showed me some of the things that are wrong with the balconies -- rotten wood, it's not hammered in there property, the right hardware hasn't been used, the right wood hasn't been used," Neptune Beach Chief David Sembach said. "After he showed me that, I have to concur with his findings."

The second-story balcony of the home collapsed about 2:30 p.m. Thursday as between 15 and 20 people were on the structure celebrating the Fourth of July.  Four people were taken by rescue to UF Health at Jacksonville with non-life-threatening injuries and four more were taken to other hospitals in private cars.

Witnesses said there was a loud creaking sound, and then it gave way.

"Heard it cracking, turned around, the balcony collapsed," Mitchell Whichard said.

IMAGES: 2nd-floor balcony collapses

"I just started sitting there, praying for them, hoping they would be OK," said neighbor Marcella Cavallaro.

Of the four transported to UF Health, three are women and one is a man and they were reported to be in good to stable condition.  There was no word on the conditions of the others taken from the scene.

Rescue personnel say there's a possibility that others may have been injured, but left before authorities arrived.

Chuck Blackwell, one of the tenants of the house that now has to find a new place to live, said he worried about the condition of the balcony and had talked to the landlord, Ernest Russell Jr.

Russell, who owns at least nine properties at Atlantic, Jacksonville and Neptune beaches, has not returned Channel 4's calls and did not answer his door.

Chief Sembach said witnesses originally said as many as 50 people were on the deck when it collapsed, but investigators now believed the number was less than half that. 

Police have closed their investigation and no charges were filed, but the city of Neptune Beach is still looking into any code or civil violations.

Channel 4 had independent home inspector Steve Kallao visit the home to look at what happened.

The number one thing is, obviously, there's wood rot, and number two, it's all cedar. Cedar is not what you call a structural wood," Kallao said.

The inspector said the balcony was old and it appeared to have not been built up to code -- an accident waiting to happen. Kallao said even though others were renting the home, the responsibility lies with the landlord.

As the city's investigation continues, the tenants have until Monday to find a new place to live.

"We're all just trying to pick up, Blackwell said. "We haven't even had the chance to try to clean the place up. This is not just a crazy, non-functional home. It is a home."

Sembach said he feels for the tenants -- at least one of which was among the injured.

"I know that the people really don't want to have to leave -- that's their home right now -- but for their own safety, they have to leave," Sembach said.

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