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Scud Missile or Sinkhole? How Olivet College’s Library Nearly Crumbled

By Asher Wertheimer, Jarel Evans, Kyle Emery, Alissa Deal, Julia Mellinger, Andrew Downer


Almost 30 years ago, on a drizzling Thursday afternoon, two people saved numerous lives in the Burrage Library. 


On January 17, 1991, Olivet College was in the process of beginning to renovate the library when a freshman heard a cracking noise, just before one of the library’s walls collapsed. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon, and she got all the students to leave the library, moments before the collapse, narrowly avoiding tragedy.


The Burrage Library was originally built in 1890. Director of Facilities Larry Colvin began working at Olivet College after the addition of the library was completed in 1993.


Colvin said, “The current library contains 33,114 square feet of usable space.  This includes the original building of approximately 11,500 sq. ft. and the new addition of 21,614 sq. ft.”.


Construction was already underway on January 17, 1991, with the college and the construction company signing the contracts that very day. The meetings and contracts consisted of how the company would remain safe, and what the plans were for building. One of the people who was involved with the renovations was Eric Witzke.


Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the meeting had finished, so Witzke and fellow coworker, Bernie Erlich, visited the library to watch the construction. The company had subcontracted someone who claimed they could lay the foundation for a cheap price; however, this person was illiterate. Because of this, the worker did not comprehend the process for laying the foundation.


When Witzke and Erlich arrived at the library after the meetings, they noticed the worker had dug below the footings of the original building by about four feet. The misty rain that had persisted throughout the day caused the sandy soil to fall away from underneath the footing of the building. 


Witzke went inside the library to use the bathroom, when Karen Greer, a freshman working at the library at the time, said she felt something was going wrong. Witzke began explaining the construction when she directed him to a corner of the wall where they were digging. There, Witzke noticed a crack, about three-quarters of an inch wide, between the wall and the joist. Then, they heard the cracking. 


Witzke told Greer to ask everyone to evacuate the library. He went outside to the workers, he said, “Get out of the hole, it’s not worth it, just get out.”


Looking back, he said, “Fortunately they did.” Witzke ran back into the building to help Greer with the evacuation. He was halfway between the first and second floor when he heard a loud crash.


“Immediately, it was about 10 degrees cooler,” he said. At the second floor, he saw what had happened: the entire east wall had collapsed into the hole. Witzke likened the scene to images of buildings leveled by Scud missiles in Iraq, which were prominent at that time.


All the students and workers were safely away from the wall due to Greer and Witzke’s quick thinking. Witzke said the reason he remembers the day it happened so well was because it was his son’s birthday. His daughter used to come sit in a window on the second floor of the library and watch the construction. Had it been any other day, she would have been sitting in that window, and in extreme danger. On that day, however, she was at home, helping plan her brother’s birthday party.


This event is further chronicled in notes that Witzke kept at the time and are available in the Lawrence Archive. Witzke said he kept these logs because the notes from the original construction of the library were discovered shortly before the renovations began. The person responsible for this meticulous account, including the tragic death of one of the workers who fell from a scaffolding, was the college’s first librarian, Morrison.


Whether it is the original, tumultuous construction of the library, or the narrow brushes with fate over 100 years later, there is no doubt that the Burrage Library has a lot to offer any who walk up the smooth, stone steps and through the worn, wooden doors.


Courtesy Image

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