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Structural problem likely cause of winery accident
MIDDLE BASS ISLAND, Ohio (The Akron Beacon Journal) -- A new day dawned on Middle Bass Island yesterday, not with the unfettered revelry that normally marks the busiest holiday weekend of the season, but with an investigation that authorities hope will tell them what caused a winery terrace to collapse beneath dozens of partyers the night before.
Authorities said the deck that overlooks Lake Erie at the historic Lonz Winery apparently wasn't overloaded, and the cause of the accident that killed a Columbus man and injured at least 75 others likely was structural. But it will probably be days before structural engineers can point to a cause with any certainty, said Put-in-Bay Police Chief Jim Lang.
Days for an answer for what happened in the blink of an eye for Leon Wyszynski.
The retired plumber from Green was sitting on the terrace of the winery on Middle Bass Island, the quieter cousin of South Bass Island's Put-in-Bay. One second Wyszynski was talking with friends, and the next second there was chaos.
There was a rumble, and then people were falling right through the floor, but the floor was falling, too. Wyszynski saw people falling, and realized that he was falling right along with them. Then he was lying amid piles of debris in the old wine cellar.
There were chunks of concrete and steel beams everywhere, and dust so thick that it made him think of those buildings seen collapsing on television. He started to get up, and realized something wasn't right with his arm. He looked down, and saw it was torn open -- a long gash clear to the bone. He put his finger deep into the wound to stanch the bleeding, and looked for Mary Jane, his wife.
She was at his side when the floor disappeared beneath them, and she was still there with him in the clouds of dust and chaos. She was banged up, but not as badly as many others. Somebody helped Wyszynski over the debris and laid him down on the grass outside.
By then, witnesses say, emergency crews had already begun arriving. They were assisted by a handful of doctors, nurses, retired firefighters and paramedics, people who happened to be at the winery or elsewhere on the island.
Helicopters carried the most seriously injured to a hospital in Toledo. Ferries transported others to the mainland, where they were sent to hospitals in Port Clinton, Cleveland and Sandusky.
Columbus resident Mark Reighard, 29, was killed, according to the Ottawa County Emergency Management Agency.
Dozens were injured in the accident, and 30 remained hospitalized yesterday, of whom six were listed in serious condition.
A helicopter transported Wyszynski directly to Akron City Hospital; in the daze that followed the accident, he's still not sure if there were other casualties on board. He was listed in satisfactory condition last night; his wife was still being checked out in the emergency room.
``She is black and blue from head to toe,'' Wyszynski said from his hospital bed.
A town transformed
The accident brought unprecedented attention to Middle Bass Island, which sits within sight of Put-in-Bay, about six miles from the mainland.
As a new crop of revelers arrived to catch the morning ferry at Catawba Island for the 45-minute ride to the Middle Bass dock yesterday, they found themselves sharing the parking lot with seven television news trucks, their satellite antennas jutting into the sky.
On a normal weekend, many of those on the boat would visit the Lonz Winery, one of the few businesses on the island. The winery offers rather sedate tours, but most come for the party, where the drinks flow freely and the music is lively.
As many as 1,500 people visit the island on the busier summer weekends. Middle Bass has about 40 residents, the winery, a general store, a marina and little else. This was perhaps the final holiday weekend for the winery, which is being sold to the state of Ohio for $6.5 million and converted to a park.
But after the accident, the winery was closed indefinitely. Body-sniffing dogs were used to comb the twisted debris, but found no other casualties. Ottawa County Sheriff Craig Emahiser, whose agency is spearheading the investigation, said the terrace addition was built in 1964, but it's unclear when it was last inspected. Engineers were using saws to cut away sections of the steel and concrete for testing on the mainland.
``It looked to (them) to be a structural problem,'' Emahiser said.
Yesterday, the 19th-century fortresslike building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was surrounded with yellow police tape snapping in the breeze. Police from Put-in-Bay stood guard and used bullhorns to order the steady stream of boats and water scooters to keep at least 300 feet back from the rocks in front of the winery.
It's the kind of attention islanders don't like to see. Many residents of the island already harbored a disdain for the partying patrons of the Lonz Winery, said Lynn Pangrace, whose family has owned a home on Middle Bass for 30 years.
The weekend partyers still came. But on this day, the freewheeling jubilance was laced with an undertone of concern -- and relief.
Looking for answers
Jim E. Thorn knows the meaning of relief. The Cuyahoga Falls native was supposed to meet other members of his family on Middle Bass for a weekend get-together. But he forgot his ATM card in his car, and in the two minutes it took to get it, the ferry had left. His family chose to leave the ill-fated winery terrace and meet him on the next island.
``It's the fate of God -- what else could it be?'' said his father, Jim C. Thorn.
That's a question many asked of the Rev. Karl Steuk, who arrived to conduct the Sunday services at the Town Hall and found a congregation twice its normal size.
``I saw people coming in this morning who were literally one step from that concrete falling,'' Steuk said. ``They just needed church fellowship.''
Carmella McLaughlin was one of those. She was near Leon and Mary Jane Wyszynski, the retired couple from Green, when the floor opened up beneath her friends, but not where she stood. They fell, she didn't.
``We heard a rumble and thought the roof fell. Everybody was crying for help,'' McLaughlin said.
George Prusock was among the injured. The 25-year-old from Mayfield Heights was attending a friend's bachelor party, which had found its way to the winery terrace. He was preparing to light cigars for the groom when the floor collapsed.
Both of Prusock's legs were injured, but he still managed to help lift a soda machine off a friend, who broke a hip and lost a mouthful of teeth.
``There were people screaming everywhere,'' Prusock said when he limped off a ferry boat yesterday. ``You don't expect anything like this to happen.''
Investigation continues into fatal terrace collapse in Ohio
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