Fraternity fall: Horrific outcome as balcony rail breaks

The wooden railing surrounding a University of Virginia fraternity's covered concrete porch appears to have collapsed–- or at least pulled away from the surrounding columns–- under the weight of some partygoers early on the morning of September 24 in an incident that resulted in a life-threatening head injury to a James Madison University student.

Emergency records indicate that the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad received a call at 2:28am Saturday about the incident at the Pi Kappa Alpha house at 513 Rugby Road.

There, says Charlottesville Police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts, rescue personnel, including officials from the Charlottesville Fire Department, found two injured males– one conscious and one unconscious. Both head injury victims, he says, were transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Police identified the less seriously injured man as 18-year-old UVA student Corey P. Milner of Ashburn, Virginia, and the critically injured one as 20-year-old Joseph A. Gabro, also of Ashburn. By presstime on Tuesday, September 27, the UVA student had been released, and the condition of the JMU student had been upgraded to "fair," according to a Medical Center official.

Although the lot slopes sharply away from Rugby Road, the spot on the terrace where the railing gave way stands just a single story above the fraternity driveway, a testament to the destructive power of gravity in an unintended fall.

City records suggest that the building was constructed in 1903 and is owned by West Range Castle Dango LLC, a Memphis-based entity that appears associated with the national fraternity. The very first chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha appears to have been founded at UVA in 1868.

The Charlottesville connection looms so large to the national fraternity– international actually– that it taps its most honored alumni for a special designation called "The Order of the West Range," named for room #47 on UVA's West Range, site of the fraternity's founding.

"Our primary concern continues to be the health of the young men who were injured," reads a statement from the Memphis headquarters. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families"

The statement indicates the property management team in Charlottesville have restricted access to the damaged zone in the chapter and are cooperating with local officials. Police say they expect no charges to be filed, and Lt. Roberts directed further inquiries to the Charlottesville building department.

As it turns out, this isn't the first such incident. On April 23, 2005, the adjacent stretch of railing on the very same porch gave way in an incident in which an allegedly inebriated 17-year-old with a visiting band broke her back.

How could this happen twice?

"We'd like to know that too," says Jim Tolbert, the Charlottesville official who oversees the building inspection department.

In the wake of the 2005 incident, the City demanded that the railing get rebuilt with reinforcing steel brackets, but officials found evidence this week to suggest, Tolbert says, that the rail was hit with force that overwhelmed the brackets.

"The steel was bent," says Tolbert, noting that officials have condemned the porch and ordered the owner to commission an engineering report that would outline corrective measures. Tolbert says he anticipates no civil action by the City.

In penning a story about the hazards of elevated decks and porches– after 22 students were injured at a Washington & Lee University party last spring– Hook journalist Dave McNair found maintenance issues to be a leading cause of such incidents.

However, some accounts suggest that party-goers were using the decorative railing at Pi Kappa Alpha for sitting or leaning– something for which it may not have been designed. If so, that could explain why a seemingly substantial and not-in-disrepair piece of architecture might fail.

–updated 5:29pm Sunday, September 25 with names of the injured men
–updated 7:51pm Sunday, September 25 with detail about the height
–updated 6:04pm Monday, September 26 with nationals statement, etc.
–updated 10:53am Tuesday, September 27 for print

Read more on: deck safety


Wouldn't balcony rails, on balconies that are used for partying, be required to meet a certain standard ? Otherwise I would think the balcony would be off limits to human habitation.

really unfortunate piece of bad luck. Has anyone asked other party goers what was going on at that point on the porch? unlikely it was the railing"s fault, ungenerous as that sounds. These sorts of accidents happen every year it seems. My heart goes out to the family, especially the parents.

Don't you remember the balcony that collapsed at UVA a few years back? In that case, it was an original building and the balcony had never been intended for the amount of people on it. The buildings are old, they haven't been inspected and no one thinks something like this will ever happen to them. If it was just a decorative railing, it wasn't meant to take the weight of anyone. This is sad, but many old houses have been repurposed into dwellings never meant to take the traffic they get.

People at 20 are young a fearless, especially when drinking. Unfortunately some get hurt or killed because of it. I never let myself get close enough to a drop where a slip or shove could send me over the edge. But, I am also fearful of heights. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise. ;)

Ice Dogg, I seriously hope you think about and reconsider the comments that you just wrote on a public forum. Being that one of the students is my roommate, was there when it happened and spent that night in hospital with him, I find it hugely disrespectful to both guys and their families that you would write something so ignorant and pointless. The balcony railing was in a bad state, especially after the earthquakes a month ago, and was not stable, and having been back with the family of one of the guys, we noticed that the wood could have been broken by much less than people leaning on it. When an incident concerns people's health and even life, I would hope that people would have more respect than to write comments that -aside from being completely inane- assume that they fell because they were drunk, much less reference a University as at all relevant. I admire the fact that your brother and sisters were trying to stand up for something they believe in, whatever that was, but this is not the place to irrationally vent your anger about something that has nothing to do with this unfortunate accident. Again, I'll ask that you reconsider your comments.

As for the author of the post entitled 'punks', you are cretin and a case in point for why some people don't deserve the Freedom of Speech that you are unfortunately entitled to. You should likewise reconsider what you wrote.


While I never find these sorts of situations funny, I also think that UVA students, and their fraternities are to blame for why the general public might think it was a drunken stupor or idiotic behavior.Under Casteen the whole drinking thing associated with violence got way out of control IMHO, and with every incident like this, an opportunity to rein it in passed by.

Instead of being incensed, how many around this will start asking questions about the other buildings that should be checked? Will the chapter step in, and start looking at how safety can be improved? Create guidelines?

I will wait and see.

Rotunda roof in bad shape, fireplaces in historic dorm rooms on "The Lawn" not working, balconies collapsing. I still think UVA should spend more on maintenance and less on new buildings.

punks - Give it a rest. I, personally, am a UVA grad. I was raised on a farm and have worked a tax-paying job since I was 15. Obviously, I don't have a trust fund and I payed for my education (I own zero pink polos as well). I seriously doubt your work history weighs in at more than a fraction of mine, and your gross generalizations exhibit nothing but your ignorance.

Not to be insensitive and it is a terrible thing that happened, but, in many cases things break because they were not properly maintained. But truth be known, in many more cases things break because someone or some group of people do not have the sense to realize when they are trying to use something, a ladder, lawn mower, lawn chair, swing, hedge trimmer or a section of balcony railing for something that it was never intended to be used for... E.G. if a 6 or 8 foot section of railing is made from 4x4 vertical posts 40 inches high set 6-8 feet apart with 2x4 top and bottom horizontal runners with one inch vertical ballisters. Realistically, how many people do you think would be able to safely sit or lean on that section before it became separated from its attach points??? Here again it also depends upon how the section is assembled, nails. screws, lag bolts, teco hangers. Do the 4x4's go through the deck into the substructure??? So, here is how people did it years ago, if they weren't exactly sure how strong something was and they had good horse sense or knew something about how things work or how they are constructed or, if they were uncertain, they had enough sense to stay the heck off of it... Most especially if there was a shear drop off on the other side of it... Young inexperienced people, drinking heavily, on a dark porch late at night, with a balcony and a railing that has god knows how many people leaning and sitting on it, a railing with an 8 foot drop on the other side is a prescription for disaster... A somewhat Darwinian situation for most young people these days. Thats why every public place one goes now, state and national parks, stadiums and amusement parks there are warning signs and safety gadgets on everything (including cups of hot coffee) and guardrails and special walkways with steel reinforced fences around everything.. Because these days there is always some Darwins Award candidate out there that cannot seem to resist the temptation to reach under that running lawnmower for the tennis ball.