Michael Lombardo, director of athletic, fitness, and outdoor programs, stands before the ruins of Gym I and Gym II.
Michael Lombardo, director of athletic, fitness, and outdoor programs, stands before the ruins of Gym I and Gym II.

Snowstorm Devastates Sports Center

Roof collapses under the weight of snow and ice. Gym I and Gym II lie in ruins. No one was hurt.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | February 19, 2021

A major section of the roof of the Watzek Sports Center caved in early Monday morning under the crushing weight of snow and ice from a powerful winter storm. No one was injured, thanks to the building’s alarm system and the resourceful response by staff at the physical plant and community safety. 

“We were very fortunate,” says Steve Yeadon, director of facilities operations, who witnessed the collapse first hand. “It gave us warning. There was no one in the building. And no one got hurt.”

The roof over Gym I and Gym II fell apart at approximately 7:59 a.m. on February 15, several hours after the electronic alarm system sounded the first warning. The impact pulverized the basketball court, the ping-pong tables, the kickboxing zone, and the Covid-19 testing area. 

“Both gyms are demolished,” says Michael Lombardo, director of athletics, fitness, and outdoor programs, who had been working in the area the night before, wiping down surfaces. “It’s heartbreaking to see the devastation. But first and foremost, I’m thankful that no one was hurt.”

The first sign of trouble came crackling in on Cindy Begg’s walkie-talkie at 2:38 a.m Monday morning. An alarm was sounding in the Sports Center. (All buildings at Reed have electronic monitoring systems.) It had already been a busy night for Begg, who manages the night shift for community safety—several dorms had lost power in the unusually powerful snowstorm that battered the region over the weekend. 

As soon as she entered the Sports Center, Begg heard banging noises coming from Gym I. As she approached the stairs down to the gym, she detected an acrid odor and saw that the floor of the basketball court was flooded with water. She told Dispatch to call the Portland Fire Bureau and woke the maintenance tech on night duty, Matt Nantz, who was sleeping on a cot in the physical plant.

When the fire crew arrived, Begg and Nantz went back inside for a closer inspection. They could see a trickle of water cascading from the ceiling—probably a burst pipe, they figured. Nantz worked to shut off the water while the fire crew silenced the alarm. Begg contacted Bryan Kelly, the buildings services supervisor on duty, for help. Once the water was shut off, he walked into Gym I to investigate what had caused the pipe to rupture.

Kelly got a funny feeling as soon as he stepped onto the floor. Throughout the weekend, he and his crew had battled loads of ice and snow that had settled on the tents set up around campus in response to COVID-19. Two of the four tents had collapsed under the weight. “My spidey sense was tingling,” he says. “I was already thinking about snow loads.” 

Looking for the source of the leak, he gazed up at the massive wooden truss above center court, and froze in horror. A section of the truss had fractured. The split had wrenched the sprinkler pipe apart. Another truss showed an ominous bulge. He suddenly realized that the banging sound was coming from the roof.

“Get the hell out of here!” he shouted. They evacuated immediately. Begg and Nantz set up a cordon around the building while Kelly alerted Steve Yeadon and other campus leaders about the situation.

Yeadon jumped into his truck and drove to Reed as fast as he dared given the ice and snow clogging the streets. He pulled into the West Lot and conferred with Kelly, who pointed out a sinister bulge in the west wall of the Sports Center, which was beginning to yawn outwards. As he walked toward the structure, Yeadon could hear staccato popping sounds. He headed up the steep path towards the Quad, stopping at vantage points to take some photos. 

It was 7:59 a.m. when he heard a deafening roar, “like a freight train crashing into the ground.” 

Before his eyes, the roof of Gym I and Gym II collapsed inward, peeling away from the walls like cardboard. The force of the impact hurled chunks of timber and fiberglass more than 30 feet into the air in a gargantuan spray of splinters and dust.

Yeadon gasped in dismay. “The sense of loss was just huge,” he says.

The winter storm dropped 6 inches of snow and ice on Portland and inflicted widespread devastation. Ice is particularly hazardous to flat-roofed buildings because it clogs downspouts, leading to a rapid accumulation of mass. The storm demolished the roof of a Safeway in Troutdale and devastated several other structures, including a car dealership in Gresham, the Waverly Marina, the Portland Rowing Club, and an industrial building in SE Portland. The Portland Bureau of Transportation closed 50 roads because of downed trees and power lines. More than 300,000 Oregonians lost power. 

Covid-19 testing, which usually takes place in Gym II, had been cancelled that day due to the treacherous weather conditions. Hundreds of testing kits now lie buried under the rubble, and it remains unclear whether they can be salvaged. Since the fall-in, staff in the office of Conference and Events Planning worked fast to set up a new testing site in the Student Union, which is now up and running.  

It is too early to answer all the questions about exactly how and why the structure failed. The Aubrey R. Watzek Sports Center was constructed in 1965; the original roof is composed of tongue-and-groove spruce decking supported by massive wooden trusses. Two years ago, the section of roof over the swimming pool was torn off and replaced; at that time, contractors also made repairs to the roof over Gym I and Gym II. 

It also remains unclear when the rest of the Sports Center, such as the swimming pool, lockers, weight room, outdoor center, dance studio, and cardio room, will be available for students to use.

In the meantime, Lombardo has been working to locate temporary homes on campus where physically-distanced athletics classes can take place; check the Sports Center website for details. 

“We are hopeful that things will work out soon so we can at least get some students back into the facility to access what we have available,” he says. 

As Reed began to sort through the wreckage, President Audrey Bilger expressed a sense of loss for the structure and a deep appreciation for the staff who responded to the emergency. “I have fond memories of jugglers and basketball games in the gyms," she says. “As saddened as I am by the damage, I am enormously grateful that no one was injured and thankful for the speedy response of our amazing staff.” 

Tags: Campus Life, Institutional, Sports & Adventures