CLINTON, Mo. – An Elks Club leader who had gone upstairs to memorize a speech for an initiation ceremony was found dead in the rubble of the brick lodge Tuesday after the century-old building collapsed.
Tony Komer, the 32-year-old "exalted ruler" of the Clinton Elks Lodge, was the only person killed in Monday night's collapse. About 50 others — including nine men who were trapped for hours — made it out alive.
"We could have had massive deaths," said Don Eaton, one of the nine trapped men. "But the one is bad enough."
Lodge members had just finished dinner when they heard a snap, and within seconds, saw the third level collapse into the second.
"I looked over and a whole section of the floor was just falling away," Elks member Jim Glasscock said.
Most were able to make it down a staircase, but Komer had gone to the third floor to memorize a passage he was to deliver at the initiation ceremony for new members.
The other nine trapped men were in a small opening among the debris. They contacted emergency officials by cell phone, huddled together and prayed. As debris fell and the rubble shifted, it felt like aftershocks and they feared they would never emerge alive.
"At one point, the nine people called 911 on their cell phone and said, `We feel the rubble shifting. Please tell the workers to pray for us,"' said Clinton Police Lt. Sonny Lynch. "I think a lot of people did."
Authorities said the building had been renovated in recent years, but it was not clear Tuesday what caused the sudden collapse. Structural engineers were being dispatched to examine the site.
It took five hours before the first man was rescued, and another five hours passed before the last man emerged. Rescue workers had to tunnel in through a neighboring building, crawling through openings on their bellies.
Seven of the trapped men were able to walk away from the building without assistance; the other two were taken on stretchers. At least four were still hospitalized Tuesday afternoon, though their injuries appeared to be limited to gashes and broken bones.
Komer was remembered as a loving family man, a generous friend and a devoted brother to the men who called the lodge a second home.
"He was always fun," said Jeff Stone, another Elks member. "You'd laugh and you'd have a great time if you were with Tony."
Hundreds of emergency officials turned out to help with the rescue effort at the lodge, which was upstairs from a men's clothing store on the town's quaint main street.
The collapse came as the Elks Club was celebrating 100 years in Clinton, about 80 miles southeast of Kansas City. Some 640 men in this town of about 9,500 people are members.
Many of them stared at the building Tuesday, looking at its twisted innards and watching workers chip away at the jagged facade.
"That was our place," Stone said.