At exactly 1:23 AM on June 24th, 2021, one section of the residential condominium building, Champlain Towers South, located in Surfside, Florida, collapsed.
The following day, President Biden issued an Emergency Declaration which authorizes federal assistance to state and local resources.
Several federal agencies mobilized immediately to support a search and rescue operation and provide assistance to the survivors while an investigation was conducted for the cause behind the tragedy.
What Took Place Before the Champlain Towers Collapse
Most of the condo’s residents were already asleep.
There were night owls, but those who were awake did not stand a chance as it was over in just a few seconds. However, the tragedy’s timeline did not start at the exact moment that the building fell.
There were already a number of signs and warnings for a weakening building, which began many years before – even 10 years after the condo’s first residents had moved in. The collapse at Champlain Towers is truly a tragedy that killed 98 and disrupted the lives of many others. Many have argued the collapse at Champlain Towers was due to flawed designs, poor construction, and the failure to make building repairs.
Here is what we know so far about the ill-fated, 40-year-old Champlain Towers South:
Just after a decade or so of Champlain Towers’ completion, it was reported that at least 1 ft of saltwater rushed into the garage, most especially during high tides.
Although the maintenance personnel would seek the management’s attention, it was ignored as the water was already coming into the area for years.
Fast forward to March 2018, an inspection report was issued, giving no hint of danger. The report was from the city’s annual check for “minimum building standards.”
It, however, mentioned peeling paint, water in the building’s underground garage, and holes in the stairwell wall. All these didn’t raise any flags.
An alarming report of engineering warns about the concrete slab that’s beneath the entrance drive and the pool. The concrete slab wasn’t sloped, which allowed water to pool.
Standing water significantly deteriorates concrete, according to the report. The consulting firm which was hired by the board of the condo association estimated repairs to cost millions, as per the documents obtained by the Miami Herald.
The company which made the report said previous attempts to repair the cracks in the underground garage done by contractors were ineffective, and they did not fix the issue.
According to the company’s president, Frank Morabito, failure to replace the waterproofing will cause concrete to deteriorate and expand exponentially.
November 25th, 2018
Residents are told that the condo tower was in good condition by the chief building inspector of Surfside, Florida during a condo association meeting.
April 9th, 2021
The damage in the underground garage worsened since the engineering report from 2018.
The president of the Champlain Towers South’s condo association, Jean Wodnicki, warned the residents. A 7-page letter was sent to all residents, outlining the major repairs that the building needed.
When you see the concrete apparently spalling, it means the rebar that is holding it together has corroded and deteriorated beneath the surface.
The same engineering consulting firm which conducted the inspection in 2018, Morabito Consultants, recommended significant repairs for the pool area of the tower, as well as the foundation, as part of its 40-year recertification process.
June 22nd, 2021
A pool contractor took documentation for the issues in the tower and put together a bid for the tower’s possible restoration work.
The contractor took photos of the cracking concrete, as well as the corroded rebar that was beneath the pool deck of the building.
June 24th, 2021
Witnesses of the tragedy said they heard alarms going off, strong wind, and some jarring booms like a military aircraft’s sonic boom.
At 1:20 AM, emergency response teams were dispatched to Collins Avenue and 88th Street of Surfside to investigate the report of an underground garage collapsing. At 1:24 AM, the second phase of the tragedy happened, which was much of the south tower collapsing in on itself.
A rescue unit, Engine 76, arrived on the scene at 1:30 AM and called for different government agencies to respond. One firefighter counted the total number of floors that fell off the building. “This seems like an entire building. One, two… nine,” the firefighter radioed the dispatcher. “11, 12 or 13… most of the condominium building is gone.”
An incident commander at 1:34 AM declared the scene to be a Level 5 incident of mass casualty. This is done when there’s a possibility of over a thousand victims or if the local resources available are likely to be exhausted or overwhelmed. “Begin the setup for an area for those that walk out wounded,” a responder calls out on the radio.
By 1:38 AM, the rescue workers were told to keep some distance from the building by the appointed incident commander as there is a report that the remaining portion of the unit that still stood was at risk of collapsing further.
The rescue units that arrived at the location reported seeing people who were on their balconies from the remaining part of the condo without any way to escape. “Just stand your ground, and keep within a safe spot. We’ll get to the individuals – notify them,” the incident commander calls out on the radio.
At around 2 AM, there was a man who walked his dog around the perimeter and heard a boy’s cries from the rubble. His name was Nicholas Balboa. “Just keep yelling, and I’ll follow your voice,” Balboa said to Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy. Balboa saw Handler as the boy waved from the debris.
The unit of Jonah Handler’s family was on the 10th floor of the building and Balboa pulled the boy away from the rubber along with the rescuers. A firefighter then carried him to a safe location. The mother of the boy, Stacie Fang, unfortunately, died on the scene.
The last missing person was positively identified on the 26th of July 2021. The final death count is 98 people from the Surfside condominium collapse.
The Investigation of the Champlain Towers Collapse
The investigation of the cause behind the tragedy started with data collection about the building which already existed in the past, including the studies about the buildings that are within the area which are potentially sinking, the Champlain Towers South’s building design, and the construction. Reports related to them are very helpful as well.
The most immediate action was search and rescue. Following the operation, debris is looked into on the ground. This is to try to put the puzzle pieces together, which is exactly what the commissioned forensic engineers do.
Careful reconstructions of the pieces will provide some clues over what happened. Portions of the condo building will be examined, specifically the ones that are still standing.
The analysis will be done on how they behaved and how the separation from the rest of the building that collapsed occurred. Things such as this help to identify the root cause of the tragedy.
Potential Cause Behind the Surfside Tower Collapse
As the tragedy that is the Champlain Towers South collapse is still currently under investigation, there’s a limited number of potential causes, which include a foundation failure due to soil liquefaction and a construction defect.
The condominium that collapsed was in a beachfront property along Miami Beach. All beachfront condominium buildings require specific kinds of pilings for support to their structural integrity. Pilings are vertical structures drilled into the ground in order to create a strong foundation for a building.
Pilings, however, can be disturbed and fail from soil liquefaction. Because the soil density changes from liquefaction, pilings shift.
Although minor shifts only have a slight impact on the foundation of a building which doesn’t result in a foundation failure, decades of structural shifts can affect the majority of the pilings. This is what results in a catastrophic failure.
Underwater Earthquake on the 18th of June
A foundation failure from soil liquefaction often occurs from a triggering event e.g. earthquakes that cause rapid shifts with soil density.
The US Navy performed an experiment involving 40,000 pounds of underwater explosives in Volusia County, Florida on June 18th, 2021. This could be the triggering event.
But, soil liquefaction isn’t always due to a triggering event. It can also be due to high-water tables. Miami’s sea levels continue to rise, which increases groundwater levels.
Although the collapse’s root cause hasn’t been determined yet, it’s definitely plausible that the rising sea level has caused high-water tables which led to the soil liquefaction and Champlain Tower’s eventual collapse.
Various parties are to be found liable for the tragedy according to the news. This can include the condo owners association of the Champlain Towers Condominium along with a number of engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and architects.
Federal lawmakers have already allocated USD$22 million in order to support the probe. The investigation will take months or even years to complete.
It’s important that engineers, officials, and associations take warnings more seriously to prevent such devastating events from happening again in the future. There are also much-needed changes that need to be implemented in condominium audits and other relevant procedures.
With that being said, there are discussions about building a memorial site to honor the 98 lives taken that day. Over 2000 signatures have been gathered already on Change.org.