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‘He was eager to grow up’ — Four weeks after fatal collapse at York hotel, no answers, no investigation

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The pastor is at his pulpit, eulogizing his 10-year-old through tears.

But his son’s classmates, parishioners, friends, family are laughing at the memories of Ben Prince. They’d been given permission to laugh, and to cry, at the start of the funeral on July 11.

Tim Prince is reading from a list he started the family's first night home from Nebraska, when he pulled out a piece of paper and started writing down all he could remember about Ben.

His wife and two other sons joined him, and they filled five pages.

Ben woke consistently at 6:30 a.m., except Saturdays, when the boys had free rein of the TV, so Ben would wake his brothers at 5:30 a.m.  or earlier  to play video games.

Ben had just mastered the Rubik’s cube and was teaching himself to juggle.

Ben’s favorite place was grandpa and grandma’s farm. In June, he helped fix a fuel line on a machine. “He was right in there, he wanted to get it right. He was eager to grow up.”

Ben was a good thinker but an average student who believed handing in homework was optional.

Ben didn’t like biking, but he loved swimming. He was learning to play the piano, he was going to be a school crossing guard in the fall, he loved reading maps and he loved Calvin and Hobbes  and wore a smirk like Calvin.

“He was a good-looking kid, a really good-looking kid,” his father says now, tears returning. “When they retrieved his body on Sunday, I got to just sit with him in the ambulance and hold his hand. He has the most beautiful hands, a boy’s hands, but you could see they were already getting bigger and stronger.”

‘The incredible weight of the debris’

They were on vacation.

Tim Prince had delivered the service at Faith Community Church in Hudson, Wisconsin, the morning of July 3, and then he and his family  wife Darcy and sons Caleb, Ben and Jordan  headed southwest for a trip to Colorado.

They were traveling with two other pastors from the church and their families, and they all made it as far as York that first day. The Princes checked into the Hampton Inn, 500 miles from home.

The 911 calls started pouring in just after 9 that night.

Multiple calls, people screaming, York Police Sgt. Ben Rodenborg wrote the next day in his report, one of six officer accounts obtained by the Journal Star through a public records request.

The ceiling above the swimming pool at the Hampton Inn  a 13-year-old hotel just north of Interstate 80  had collapsed, the callers told dispatchers. And people may be trapped.

Officer Zac Milliken arrived before Rodenborg. Inside the pool area, he found a father holding his son’s hand.

The boy’s head and chest were on the deck, his legs were still in the water, and he was pinned by a large piece of the ceiling. He was not moving.

The man was also pushing against the slab, trying to free the boy. York Police officers and York County Sheriff’s deputies tried to lift the debris, too, but were unable to.

“These attempts were impeded by falling water from the ceiling and the incredible weight of the debris,” Milliken wrote.

York Hampton Inn before

The Hampton Inn's indoor pool looked like many other hotel recreation areas before its ceiling collapsed over the July 4 weekend, killing a boy from Wisconsin.

York Hampton Inn after

The Hampton Inn's indoor pool looked like many other hotel recreation areas before its ceiling collapsed over the July 4 weekend, killing a boy from Wisconsin.

When it fell, the ceiling brought with it the 2-by-4 framing, ductwork, lights and wiring, and had torn open a pipe, and water was gushing into the pool room.

The first responders feared more of the ceiling could fall, so they evacuated, one of the officers taking the man by the arm and walking him out.

Rodenborg arrived, saw the boy’s body and the gushing water, and found the hotel’s maintenance man at the front desk.

We need to shut off the water and power immediately, he said.

The control room’s in the pool area, the maintenance man told him.

Together, they pushed through several inches of water and forced the control room door open enough to get inside. The manager joined them, and Rodenborg told her to check the hotel’s cameras, to make sure nobody else was trapped.

At about the same time, Officer Bricen Bates was searching for the utility shut-offs, too, and slipped on the wet tile, wedging his right foot beneath a door and falling.

He stood, felt the pain in his ankle, but kept working, he wrote.

Just outside the pool, Bates found two adults and two boys, crying. He was guiding them to a safer place to wait when the older boy asked him to promise: Don’t let my brother die.

“I told the juvenile that he needed to be a strong big brother and help his little brother and mom.”

Rodenborg told Bates to confirm nobody else was beneath the debris, so he found the manager and reviewed the surveillance footage.

On it, he saw just the three boys in the pool, and their mother watching from the deck. He saw the ceiling sag in the center, the mother helping her sons get out. And then he saw the ceiling collapse, and he couldn’t see anything after that.

Bates joined other officers  and two jail employees  who were evacuating hotel guests, ushering them across the street to Runza. Most of them complied, but the front desk told Bates that people in three rooms were refusing to leave.

He got a master key, and he and the other officers canvassed the hotel, checking room after room, ensuring they were empty.

They found two locked with security latches, so he and Sgt. Jeffrey Brown used their body weight to force the doors open. They escorted the guests out of the building.

Officers obtained that night’s hotel guest list and conducted a roll call at the Runza. Eventually, everybody was accounted for, and the Hampton Inn manager found them rooms at the Best Western.

Only then did Bates go to the hospital for his ankle.

Back in the pool room, the York Fire Department was trying to retrieve the boy’s body. The debris was too heavy to lift by hand, so tow trucks from Hitz Towing and Mogul Towing were called to stabilize part of it while firefighters used airbags, lifting the debris enough so they could pull him out.

But almost all of the pool was covered by the ceiling, and they wanted to be sure nobody else was under it, Fire Chief Tony Bestwick said. That night, they called Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s Urban Search and Rescue team, to see if it had an underwater camera. It didn’t, Bestwick said.

Then, at about midnight, they checked with the Grand Island Dive Rescue Team, which did, and made arrangements for the team to be in York early the next morning.

“The fire chief didn’t really want us in the water,” said rescue team secretary Jack Welch. “So I had my underwater camera and I had it on a pole that I could put down in the water.”

He added dive lights, and they spent about 45 minutes recording beneath the ceiling and reviewing the footage. They were able to access most of the pool, but not all of it, Welch said.

The fire department called a plumber, who drained the pool. Firefighters were finally able to climb down into it and move the drywall and other debris around enough to determine it was empty.

No authority to investigate

A month later, it’s not clear what caused the ceiling to collapse.

There’s been no investigation by authorities, and none appears to be planned.

The day after the collapse, news outlets reported the Nebraska State Fire Marshal's Agency was investigating. But it isn’t, said spokeswoman Regina Shields. The fire marshal investigates fires and explosions, not structural failures.

It did dispatch an inspector to the hotel to look for any fire code concerns with the rest of the hotel, because the sprinkler system is connected throughout the building.

York Police officers documented what they saw  and what they did  that night, but they aren’t investigating further because it’s not a criminal case, said city administrator Sue Crawford.

And the city’s building inspectors aren’t looking into the collapse, either, she said. Their authority is to make sure a new structure meets the city’s building codes and is safe for occupation  and remains safe after a renovation.

They don’t investigate problems after a building is issued an occupancy permit.

“I was hoping the fire marshal’s office had that authority, but it turns out they don’t,” Crawford said. “Our job, in terms of safety, is to ensure the building’s structurally safe when built and remains structurally safe when occupied.”

Hotel ceiling collapse

The swimming pool deck at the Hampton Inn, the night of its collapse.

When it was built in 2009, the Hampton Inn  like other buildings in York  went through a 28-step process before it could earn an occupancy permit, with multiple inspections, including a final sign-off by an engineer.

“But all of that is proactive, ensuring the building is structurally sound. When there is a tragedy and no one knows for sure what the cause is, that is unsettling to me,” Crawford said.

She predicted the collapse will, ultimately, be investigated and litigated civilly  in court.

“When someone is harmed, terribly harmed, that is another way the law works, that there is a civil investigation to identify responsibility and accountability.”

If something similar happened in Lincoln, the city’s Building and Safety Department wouldn’t necessarily investigate to determine the cause of the failure, but it would make sure the rest of the building was safe, said director Chad Blahak.

“We’d show up and do an investigation to ascertain what kind of repairs are needed, and do we have to condemn the area? If there was a collapse like that, we’d get involved.”

The hotel’s management isn’t talking. A woman who came to the phone in York said she was authorized to answer questions but: “We’re not answering questions at this time.”

And a corporate spokeswoman for Hilton  Hampton Inn’s parent company  declined to reply to questions, saying the York hotel is independently owned and operated, and she’d forward the Journal Star’s inquiry to the property owner.

A banner at the top of the website for York’s Hampton Inn said the pool was closed for renovations.

‘So hard and dark’

Eight days later, at the start of his son’s funeral, Tim Prince gave thanks.

He thanked the two pastors and their families who had been traveling with them to Colorado. They sat and cried with the Prince family that night in York, drove them home to Hudson, stayed at their house with them until relatives arrived.

“One of our family mottos is, we’ll have what we need when we need it. You were what we needed on July 3.”

He thanked York’s first responders. “Who worked so hard to retrieve Ben’s body and treated it with such dignity. And sat with us while we waited for the worst. Words cannot express our gratitude.”

And he thanked his family.

“After narrowly escaping the room with their own lives, all three rushed back into a collapsing building to rescue their brother and pushed and pulled and fought with a collapsing ceiling until their backs and knees and hands were raw and bleeding.”

Near the end of his son’s eulogy, Prince talked about the pain of the family's loss.

Over and over through the boys' school years, he and his wife have prayed for their sons, he said. God, prepare them for good work in your kingdom.

“We could not wait to see what he would become. That is what has made this last week so incomprehensible to us, so hard and dark. Not just that Ben is gone, but that he left in such an awful way.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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