The Pi Kappa Alpha house stands near the intersection with Grady Avenue.
Online bonus: Cav Daily front page from 2005
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