Building collapses in ‘microburst’

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express
Knapp & Schlappi’s expansion project had just finished framing when it was hit by a microburst storm.

Knapp & Schlappi’s expansion project had just finished framing

PENN YAN — The National Weather Service office in Binghamton issued the following alert Wednesday, May 26: “At 11:58 AM EDT, strong thunderstorms were clustered over Naples, or 14 miles east of Dansville, moving east at 45 mph. Winds in excess of 40 mph are possible with this storm. Locations impacted include ... Penn Yan, Starkey, Benton, Potter, Dundee, Middlesex, Pulteney, Italy, Cohocton, and Rushville. To report severe weather, contact your nearest law enforcement agency.”

Within minutes, law enforcement in Penn Yan was informed that a large building of around 6,000 square feet under construction at Knapp & Schlappi Lumber Co. at 273 Lake St., had collapsed in the strong winds.

Investigator Wayne Marsh described the gusts on Main Street where he was just before the call as “incredible.” While saying he is not a weather expert, Marsh believes what happened in Penn Yan was a “microburst,” which the NWS defines as “a localized column of sinking air (downdraft) within a thunderstorm and is usually less than or equal to 2.5 miles in diameter. Microbursts can cause extensive damage at the surface and, in some instances, can be life-threatening. 

Microbursts form as strong winds caused by cold air flowing down through rainstorms.

The Knapp & Schlappi partner/owner Steve Perry says the project had originally been planned in 2017 as a new rental store in cooperation with Do It Best, their hardware franchise. That plan changed, but this spring, the project moved forward as the new custom shop and storage building for windows and doors.

The approximately 6,000 square-foot building was hit by the strong wind just after the last roof trusses had been secure, but before the sheathing had been applied. The propane tank seen here has since been removed.
The building (left) as originally planned in 2017 as a rental center, window and door storage, and custom shop.

Sutherland Contractors had just finished placing the last roof trusses when the microburst hit. Knapp & Schlappi partner/owner Nick Olney said the wind and rain were so intense no one could see anything out the front door. Employees described the sound of falling lumber and finding the four Sutherland employees getting out from the fallen pile of framing.

Olney said at the scene, if the builders had been up with the trusses or under where they fell, they might have been killed. Fortunately, Perry reports, only three suffered minor injuries and were treated at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital, with one requiring stitches. “We’re just grateful no one was badly hurt,” said Perry.

The microburst happened to come at the building’s most vulnerable stage; before the sheathing had been applied to the frame, which gives the structure its rigidity. However, Perry says the truss company, Benton Ridge, is already planning to remove, repair, reinspect, and return the trusses when the project moves forward again.