A woman who survived a the collapse of a balcony in which at least 12 people died said she heard wood splitting just before she fell.
As many as 35 other people were injured in the tragedy when the second floor balcony gave way, crushing the first-floor balcony beneath it to the ground and trapping some people in a basement stairwell at a building in Chicago, in the United States.
Disaster struck as scores of university graduates were enjoying a party in the city’s northern suburbs.
The 24-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said she was making her way on to the crowded balcony just after midnight Chicago time (6am BST) when she plunged 30 feet and was buried in the rubble.
“I am just in shock, I was just hysterical. I am just beat up and I feel very lucky,” She told PA News.
“I feel just like I have had an out of body experience, I cannot believe it.”
The party, which was held on two floors of an apartment block, was given by group of graduates in their mid-20s from Duke University, north Carolina.
Guests started arriving by 9.30pm and the place was packed by midnight.
“I just stepped out at about 12.30am, I took one step, maybe two and then I heard creaking and splitting and screaming,” she said.
“The most horrible screaming. I fell for a second – I was told 30 feet – then I had stuff on top of me like wood and also people below me.
“My right foot was caught for a second and I pulled it free.”
The woman, from north Carolina, said she thought she was going to die, adding: “I could not believe this was how it was going to end.”
She was desperate to contact her parents and her English boyfriend, who lives in London, she said.
“I opened my eyes and I looked up and I realised I was about four feet below the ground floor,” she said.
“Somebody from the party – not a policeman, not a fireman – was there. I said please get me out, please get me out.
“He grabbed my arm and then got me out.”
The woman, who clothes were ripped and torn, said she escaped with four serious scrapes on the left side of her body and a few cuts and scrapes.
“I am just so lucky,” she said.
She said that earlier in the evening she had felt that the balcony was unsafe.
“I felt like my mother,” she said. “I said this deck is really unsafe – if too many people go out on this, it is going to collapse.”
She said she spent the 45 minutes “after the madness” helping pull people out before being ordered on to a stretcher and sent to the hospital.
“I was so scared, I never wanted to be put on that stretcher,” she added.
Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce told of “chaos” which greeted the first emergency workers to arrive.
“There were people screaming and crying in the alley,” he said.
Eleven people were pronounced dead at the scene and 35 others were taken to area hospitals.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office later confirmed that another person was pronounced dead at Advocate Illinois Medical Centre.
The collapse happened in the Wrigleyville neighbourhood on the city’s North Side.
“It was simply a case of too many people in a small space,” Joyce said.
Fina Cannon, who was also at the party, said a large number of people were on the second-floor balcony, and others were on the first-floor balcony.
She went into the building from the rear area, but avoided the balconies after getting to the party.
She was in the back kitchen, looking out at the porch, when it collapsed.
“All of a sudden I saw all these heads going down,” Cannon said. “The floor just dropped out from underneath them. They all went down in unison.”
Michelle Myers said her son was on the balcony but managed to jump to the kitchen doorway as the floor gave way.
Fire Commissioner Joyce said it was a “tragic case of overloading”.
Chicago Police said as many as 40 or 50 people might have been on the balcony at the time of the collapse – far more than it was designed to hold.
One neighbour, Dr David Guelich, an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where some of the victims were taken, said: “The balconies could probably facilitate 20 to 30 people.”
Witnesses said the rails of the second-floor balcony were still in place several hours after the collapse, but the floor had fallen out completely.
Neighbours said they saw emergency workers using chain saws to cut through the debris to get to the victims.