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Storm collapses roof of theater, trapping concertgoers and killing man

On March 31, in Belvidere, Ill., one person was killed and 28 were injured when extreme weather tore the roof off a theater during a concert. (Video: The Washington Post)
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BELVIDERE, Ill. — One person died and 40 were injured Friday when the roof of a concert venue collapsed from a storm, authorities said, a strike at the heart of a town reeling from a factory closure last month.

Tornado sirens went off in downtown Belvidere at 7:24 p.m. Friday, authorities said, when more than 200 people were at the Apollo Theatre for a concert headlined by Florida-based metal band Morbid Angel. It was unknown whether those at the concert had heard or responded to the siren.

About 23 minutes later, the Apollo roof collapsed, said Boone County Emergency Management Director Dan Zaccard. Some concertgoers were trapped under the rubble, and others rushed to free them, pulling people from the debris, officials said.

Zaccard said people at the concert tried to help the person who died, a 50-year-old man.

“He was under the debris,” Zaccard said at a Saturday afternoon news conference. “He was already gone.”

Officials said the fast response by concertgoers and first responders had prevented a worse tragedy.

“If it wasn’t for their quick actions, and the fact that they were planning for this storm and were prepared, things could’ve looked a lot different today. But because of that, we had lives that were saved,” Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau said, referencing the fire department’s search-and-rescue effort.

Shawn Schadle, the city’s fire chief, said in a Saturday news conference that he did not know whether the person who was pronounced dead at the scene was working at the venue or attending the concert. Officials declined to identify the man.

Two people had life-threatening injuries, Schadle said Saturday, and about 40 were treated for their wounds.

OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center spokesman Paul Arco told The Washington Post on Saturday afternoon that the Rockford hospital was treating 12 patients, ages 14-47; two were in critical condition.

Morbid Angel, the band that was to headline Friday’s show, shared its “deepest and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends” of the person who’d died.

“We lost a brother in Metal last night, and many were hurt and injured in this tragedy,” the band posted to its Facebook page Saturday afternoon. “We would like to express how truly thankful we are for those in attendance (Fans, Venue Staff, Bands and Crew) that assisted with getting people out and to safety.”

The band also thanked first responders, whom it called “true heroes.”

The storm was one of many that brought destruction to the Midwest and South over the weekend, dropping deadly tornadoes and cutting power to 700,000 customers a week after at least 26 people were killed by severe weather.

On Saturday morning, dozens of residents gathered in downtown Belvidere to watch construction crews navigate the rubble around the century-old Apollo, where the crumpled marquee had crashed into the sidewalk, part of the roof lying in the middle of the street.

The theater was a go-to spot in the city, said resident Dave Weiner, 54. The former movie theater had become a popular venue for quinceañera celebrations and all-ages concerts, including the Friday night show.

“It’s one of the only things for the youth to do in town; now it’s gone,” Weiner said.

He had been down the road at the Buchanan Street Pub, where it was a smaller crowd than usual with the show going on.

Between 7:30 and 8 p.m., the power started flickering, and TVs were giving out warnings, he said.

The next morning, police and fire crews nudged onlookers aside as some wondered what would happen to the building. Belvidere, a city of 25,000 people, roughly 70 miles northwest of Chicago, is facing stiff economic challenges after a Jeep assembly plant went dark last month.

Bob Flynn, 66, surveyed the damaged theater while holding Shorty, his Jack Russell terrier.

“The people who owned it put a lot of time and money into it. It was good for the community,” Flynn said. “Now it’ll be like a ghost town.”

Maria Martinez bought the Apollo with her brother Eduardo Avila more than 25 years ago so that their family could revitalize the building and the community it served, according to the Rockford Register Star.

She had replaced the roof twice by 2017, the newspaper reported at the time.

No one responded to messages The Post left at numbers listed for Martinez and Eduardo Avila on Saturday morning.

The Apollo is a historic site and landmark in Belvidere, so important to the town’s identity that the mayor described it as “kind of like our brand.” The building had been renovated in recent years, Mayor Clinton Morris said at a Saturday news conference.

Although the building has been condemned after the storm, engineers will determine whether it can be salvaged; cleanup could take weeks, officials said.

McDaniel reported from Washington.