The Miami-area apartment building that crashed to the ground in a horrifying early-morning collapse Thursday had been experiencing “issues” for years, and it was even the subject of a scientific study last year that warned of it sinking into the earth.
The Champlain Towers complex in Surfside, Florida, was the subject of at least one lawsuit over the maintenance of the structure’s outer walls. In addition, the building attracted the attention of scientists alarmed over flooding and land erosion. (Update: Officials released a 2018 report late Friday in which an engineer warned of “major structural damage” to the concrete foundations of the building.)
According to a Florida International University professor who co-authored a study focused on the issue last year, the complex had been sinking into the earth bit by bit since the 1990s, at one point at a rate of about 2 millimeters per year.
Professor Shimon Wdowinski and co-author Simone Fiaschi were examining increases in flooding frequency, and found that in addition to rising sea levels, flooding was “significantly higher” in areas along the southeastern coast that had been sinking into the earth due to urban development and compacted sediment on what was (at least in part) reclaimed marshland. At the same time, Wdowinski pointed out that “land subsidence,” or a settling of the ground, “in and of itself likely would not cause a building’s collapse.”
“We cannot say, what was the cause,” Wdowinski told The Daily Beast. “It might be that the foundation moved downward, or just part of it, and they call this ‘differential subsidence.’ And that can cause tension in the building and cause cracks. Maybe the foundation didn’t move, but another part of the building was subjected to some sort of structural damage or was compromised and the building moved. But we cannot say...we just were able to detect that the building was sinking.”
The collapse at Champlain Towers left at least four people dead, although authorities are still combing through the rubble and expect the number of fatalities to rise. At least 35 survivors have been pulled from the rubble. Another 99 people remain unaccounted for.
Questions immediately arose about what could have caused more than 50 apartments to suddenly cleave away from the rest of the building. The oceanfront complex, located just north of Miami Beach, was built in 1981.
It had been undergoing some apparently routine roof repairs at the time of the collapse, although it isn’t clear if that had anything to do with the building’s apparent structural failure. Living there isn’t cheap—a penthouse suite recently sold for $2.8 million.
Kobi Karp, an architect who has practiced in Miami since the late 1980s, said the construction method used in South Florida has been the standard since the 1920s, and it is “the most structurally sound and safest way to build structures, whether it’s a two-story home or a high-rise.”
Buildings such as the Champlain Towers complex are made of structural concrete set atop concrete pilings in order to withstand lateral wind loads, namely, hurricanes.
“So even a building built in the 1980s is a relatively young building,” Karp told The Daily Beast, adding that the event that led to the building’s collapse “could have occurred in the past 24 hours or in the past 24 months.”
But, he said, “the cause is either a structural event that occurred because they were working on the roof and put too much load concentrated in a certain area, and/or there was somebody working on the structure and created a cut or damage that caused structural failure. In both scenarios, it seems to be a man-made cause.”
Karp said it looked to him like the tower came down due to “an internal event, whereby the vertical concrete structure broke apart from the horizontal. And as the slabs fell down, the impact was obviously pretty strong and that’s what shows you the pancake effect.”
“This is highly unusual,” he said. “Unique… This is the first time that I’ve seen something like this in Florida.”
James McGuinness, the chief of Surfside’s building department, reportedly told an urgent meeting of town commissioners that roof workers were carrying out repairs and adding suspension hooks used by window cleaners. He didn’t think there was an inordinate amount of materials on the roof that would cause a collapse. (McGuinness did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.)
Adriana Chi, 42, who said her brother Edgar Gonzalez, 45, has lived in Champlain Towers South since 2005 but whose family has owned it since 1994, said that a month ago things were so bad that she told her brother the building seemed like it might collapse one day.
“I’m not an architect or an engineer,” she told The Daily Beast. “But at the end of the day, it could not have been built correctly for something like that to happen.”
Chi said that in recent years there were issues with ceiling leaks and black mold that forced her brother to renovate the kitchen.
The balcony she frequently smoked on always seemed a little slanted. “There’s been issues for a while,” Chi said, adding, “There was something off with that building.”
A 2015 lawsuit filed by a Champlain Towers South resident alleged that building management did not properly maintain the structure’s outer walls. The previous year, water seeped in through cracks in an outside wall, causing an unspecified amount of damage, the filing states, noting that it was the second time the resident had sued over the same issue. The previous case was settled when the management agreed to pay for the damage, according to Miami-Dade civil court records.
In an email, Daniel Wagner, the attorney who represented the resident that brought the 2015 lawsuit, said he could not “go into detail about the specifics of his representation,” but that “the lawsuit that was previously filed by me related to the structural integrity and serious disrepair” of the building.
Jose Smith, an attorney who represented a client in a slip-and-fall case involving the Champlain Towers, told The Daily Beast that this morning’s collapse shocked him.
“To this day I never would have suspected structural issues,” Smith said. “I am very familiar with the property.”
Another Champlain Towers resident said she luckily wasn’t at home last night, but described the complex as “famous for being very well maintained,” and “one of the most solid buildings in Surfside.”
“The person that built the Champlains, his family owns penthouses in the building,” the resident, who declined to be identified, told The Daily Beast. “They made it really strong.”
If anything, the resident said the construction of an apartment building just to the south of the Champlain seemed, to her, problematic and “maybe a little bit too loose” with building practices.
“They drilled very close to [our] building,” she said. “Probably disturbed the structure. I’m sure everyone will blame everyone else.”
Another resident, Barry Cohen, told the Associated Press that he raised concerns years ago about nearby construction possibly causing pavers on the pool deck to crack.
Kenneth Direktor, an attorney who represents the Champlain Towers East condominium association—the apartment owners who share ownership of the building itself—said that the structure was about to undergo a scheduled 40-year-inspection by city officials, a standard procedure required of all multi-family buildings, but there were no red flags that he knew of.
“The root causes of this can’t be known at this time,” Direktor told The Daily Beast. “There is an engineering investigation going on now into how this happened. To my knowledge, there was no sign that anything like this was coming. They have had extensive engineering on the property over many, many months, and the building will be working with the city to investigate this.”
“Our only concern at this time is to account for the residents who are still missing,” he said.
Direktor was not immediately available to answer specific follow-up questions about the FIU study and the past allegations of water-damaged walls.
Armin Mehrabi, a civil engineer and FIU professor who specializes in the inspection and evaluation of cable-supported bridges, said one extremely important lesson that can already be learned from the Champlain Towers collapse is that the 40-year inspection interval for oceanfront buildings needs to be revisited.
“I think certain high-rise buildings located in certain locations need to be structurally inspected more frequently,” Mehrabi told The Daily Beast. “Maybe every five to 10 years. Every 40 years is way too long. I mean, we inspect every bridge in the U.S. once every two years. You’re going to have to do the same thing for buildings.”
Said Wdowinski, “We have an amazing technology that exists already for 30 years, that can actually detect such small movements. And it might be important to implement it in a more rigorous way to detect a potential failure in buildings and maybe prevent such things in the future.”
—Andrew Boryga contributed reporting