Balcony collapse injures 74: Seven in serious or critical condition after Polson bar incident

This article originally appeared in the Daily Inter Lake on Aug. 1, 2004. View published clip (PDF). Award: 1st place spot news reporting, Div. 5: Daily newspapers, Montana Newspaper Association 2005 Better Newspaper Contest.

Tabetha Brown doesn’t remember falling.

“I remember looking up at all the people standing out the door looking down on us,” Brown said. “I remember lying there trying to figure out just what happened.”

The 21-year-old from Missoula and about 15 friends were at the Diamond Horseshoe Lounge and Grill in Polson on Friday night when a rear deck collapsed, spilling dozens of people about 14 feet to the ground.

Brown and her friends had come up to Polson for an annual three-man basketball tournament. She had been standing on the deck, among what she thought to be 100 people, shortly after 11:30 p.m.

Then her stomach “felt like when you fall,” and suddenly she was on her back.

“It was weird,” she said. “We all landed in our own space,” even though the crowd was packed.

Though the impact was strong enough to knock off her shoes, she didn’t feel any pain until she tried to stand and discovered she couldn’t put pressure on her left foot. Someone helped her to a picnic table near where emergency personnel had set up a triage station. She soon was brought to St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson, where an air cast was put on her foot and she was released after about an hour.

Brown’s friend Carmen Gonzalez, 21, also of Missoula, doesn’t remember falling, either.

“I just remember hitting the ground,” she said.

Gonzalez and another friend had been standing and talking in the middle of the deck, squeezed among what she estimated to be 150 people.

“We couldn’t move,” she said. “We were shoulder to shoulder with people.”

Then suddenly she and her friend were flat on their stomachs, the wind knocked out of them. They sat for a moment before standing.

“Everybody was kind of in shock, like `Did this really happen?’” Gonzalez said.

Then it was “pure chaos.”

“People were screaming,” she said. “[But] I felt fine. I just lost my shoes.”

Tim Davis, 20, of Missoula had been standing in the doorway between the bar and the deck, drinking a beer and unable to join his friends Brown and Gonzalez.

“We were going to go out on [the deck], but there were so many people,” he said. A few people were jumping up and down, he said, but most had been standing there when the deck “just fell.”

“Everyone got quiet for a second, then everyone started hootin’ and hollerin’ looking for their friends,” Davis said.

He, too, estimated the crowd to be 150.

Davis set out to find his own friends, about seven of whom he thought were on the deck when it fell. Within 30 minutes he had found everyone.

Brown said she and one other friend were the only ones in the group to be injured.

Doug Mann was about 150 yards away at the Bear Harbor condominiums when he heard the deck collapse. He said it sounded like a “tree falling.”

“Kind of a big snap and a crack that echoed across the lake,” Mann said. “Then I heard someone yell out ‘Oh my God,’ and someone yelled out, ‘Dude, I told you that was going to happen.'”

Then everything went “kind of eerie silent” for a moment before a ruckus broke out, he said.

Investigators on Saturday said more than 70 people had received medical treatment, and it was “too soon” to tell the cause of the collapse.

On Saturday morning, small groups of people who had been at the bar the previous night watched investigators at the scene. Some snapped pictures with disposable cameras.

Brown and Gonzalez were among those who returned.

“It was crazy to see how far it really was,” Brown said. “It could be a lot worse. We were pretty lucky the deck fell all together. We all just fell straight, which was really a good thing.”

The timing of the accident was not a good thing for Brown, however. The University of Montana junior is a cheerleader for the Griz, and her season was to start Tuesday.