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Buried Alive - Return to the Connor Hotel - KOAM TV 7

Alfred Sommers has passed away

Buried Alive - Return to the Connor Hotel

UPDATED FEBRUARY 10, 2012:  We have just learned that a man who survived three and half days of being buried beneath the Connor Hotel when it collapsed in 1978 passed away today.

Alfred Sommers was 64.  He is survived by his wife Pat.

In 2009 Alfred spoke with Dowe Quick.  His story is below.

 

"They have Alfred Sommers."   KOAM-TV viewers got the news, live in November of 1978.

Eighty-two hours earlier, the Connor Hotel had crashed to the ground burying three men in Joplin, Missouri, thrusting the city into the national headlines.

Sommers recently revisited the site for the first time since his rescue.

He recounted his experience -- three and a half days -- buried alive.

Crown jewel a destination point along Route 66

When it was built in 1907 the Connor Hotel was unlike anything the city had seen before.  Nine stories of old-world elegance, polished marble and chandeliers.  It was the crown jewel of the city.

"It was a very elegant building, it had almost a very European look," says Brad Belk, a Joplin historian.  "(Downtown Joplin) had obviously a very different landscape, especially around 1907 than what the architecture on Main Street looked at the time."

For 70 years the Connor Hotel sat in the geographic and sentimental heart of Joplin.  It would become a destination point along old Route 66.

"About everybody who was anybody who came to Joplin during that period probably stayed at the Connor Hotel," Belks says.

But by the late 1970's the building was deteriorating and scheduled to be demolished.

Something went wrong one day before demolition

Alfred Sommers was part of the crew called in to prepare the building for destruction and to salvage some of the Connor's ornate architectural pieces, including statues and hand-painted walls.

Underneath, it was clear the hotel was in bad shape.

"When we was tearing it down I seen the inner bricks were just as rotten as the outer bricks," Alfred says.

While working with the salvage crew Alfred injured his hand and had to take a week off.

On the morning of Saturday, November 11, 1978  Alfred went to the Connor Hotel intending just to collect a paycheck.

It was the day before the Connor was to be brought down by dynamite and the crew was short staffed.  Alfred agreed to help with last day preparations in the basement.

But something went wrong.  The building shook and rumbled, then came crashing down.

"I didn't even hear the collapse.  All I saw was a little bit of dust and then pretty soon - dark."

Injured and alone in the darkness

"If I'd been upstairs in one of the other rooms I probably wouldn't even been here," Alfred told us.  "If I'd tried to run - I didn't even have a chance to run."

Alfred would later learn that when a beam fell it made an arch over him, saving his life.

He was isolated in the dark and buried alive.

"It wasn't a very big size I was in - it wasn't a very big area at all," Alfred told us.  "I couldn't stand up.  I couldn't sit up.  I had to lay all the time."

He tried to crawl but there was nowhere to go. He felt around in the dark.  He was disoriented and in pain.

"Broken pelvis, broken ribs on each side, a lot of dust on me," he says.  "A lot of dust in my lungs, you know breathing the dust on me.  I was in pretty bad shape at the time."

On the outside witnesses were stunned to see the entire hotel collapse to the ground.  They knew men had been working inside and now three men were missing beneath all those tons of concrete, steel and bricks.

Panicked families rush to the site

Among those waiting for news was Alfred's fiancee, Pat Crain.  The couple had planned to marry in a month.

Pat knew Alfred was at the building getting his check, but she did not know he was in the building when it collapsed.

"Everybody came to the house and wanted to know if I had the TV on and I said 'no, not yet', and they said 'you need to turn it on' and it didn't take me long to get down there real quick," Pat says.  "I was thinking 'please help us get through this' and hope he was okay where we could get our lives back."

Print and broadcast media across the nation were reporting on the hotel collapse in Joplin, Missouri, and the uncertain fate of the three missing men.

"If something happened to him my life would be gone," Pat says.

But she still had hope.

"God was talking to me," she says.  "He was saying 'he is alive'".

Waiting to be found

Confined deep in his underground prison, Alfred found a piece of metal pipe and pounded on the surrounding rubble.  Rescuers could not hear Alfred but he could hear the jackhammers overhead.

"I could hear 'em, you know, close and closer and closer.  Pretty soon it was just nothing.  Quiet.  And every time they shut things down up top to try to hear me I thought 'are they giving up?  are they done?'"

A day would pass.  Then another.  Then another.

Dehydrated, Alfred relied on his Vietnam survival training to help him focus his mind beyond his thirst.

Alfred says now that he did not think he would survive.

"There at the last, just before they found me - 'take me, I'm ready to come home with you,'" Alfred says.  "A little bit after that, they found me."

He says he saw a light and smelled a whiff of fresh air.

Rescuers had broken through, but the passage was too narrow and the threat of another collapse was too great to pull Alfred free.

"I could just hear 'em"

The rescue crew passed concrete blocks to Alfred he could reinforce the surrounding structure himself.

Eighty-two hours after the Connor Hotel crashed to the ground KOAM viewers heard the live report.

"They have Alfred Sommers."

"And all I could do was hear 'em cheering'" Alfred says.  "I couldn't see nothing',  I could just hear 'em."

"I finally come out of there and I thought "Lord, I hope the other ones - the others are somewhere safe'.  Well, meant to be."

Two men did not survive - Thomas Oaks and Frederick Coe.  But Alfred was safe.

"I didn't have no doubt," Pat says.  "I knew he was going to come back to me to me and my son.  I knew that."

"Oh, it felt good," Alfred says.  "It felt so good because I was able to touch 'em again."

An "eerie" return

A month after Alfred was rescued he and Pat were married.  Over 30 years later the two are still together - their family now includes grandchildren.

The Joplin Public Library now stands on the spot where the Connor Hotel crashed to the ground.  Architectural pieces mounted outside the library were salvaged artifacts from the hotel.

Only recently has Alfred stepped into the library where the historic building once stood.

Asked if it was difficult coming back to the site, Alfred said "yes it is, very difficult."

"It's a little eerie in a way," he said.  "A little eerie."

A library display case is dedicated to the building that used to stand on the property.

"Oh, I love it," Alfred said when he saw the display.  "(The hotel) was beautiful.  It was a beautiful thing."

Alfred continued working in construction until 1993 when he retired for health reasons.  He says now that he is not sure whether his heart, respiratory and back problems are related to the disaster.

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