The Surfside condo building, which collapsed in part early Thursday, was built 40 years ago – a pivotal milestone for most buildings in Miami-Dade County that require expert advice to ensure they are still safe.
In the absence of official explanations about what might have caused the disaster – and since rescue workers were brought to justice dozens of people who are still missing – speculation raged about what would cause such a catastrophic event and whether there were any red flags.
Champlain Towers South, the 136-unit 12-story complex at 8777 Collins Ave., which partially collapsed around 1:20 a.m., was at the beginning of its 40-year recertification process, according to city officials and others familiar with the building.
The procedure requires that once a building turns 40, owners must hire a registered architect or professional engineer to perform electrical and structural inspections within 90 days of receiving official notice from the city.
Should repairs be necessary, the owner has 150 days to carry them out. The repair costs can be shared among the owners. And if the city construction officer determines that the building is unsafe, the case will be referred to the county’s Unsafe Structures Board for review.
Buildings then repeat this process every 10 years after the initial 40-year review.
It is unclear what stage the review process was at and whether anything was marked in the Champlain Towers, which consists of three adjacent buildings near 88th Street and Collins Ave.
Surfside officials have not yet released any public records that could shed light on the process.
“Due to the devastating and tragic event that happened this morning, we are working diligently to compile the records and will make them available as soon as possible,” said City Secretary Sandra N. McCready in response to a Herald request for inspection documents .
But City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told the Herald that the roof of the Champlain South building was being renewed and that James McGuinness, the city’s construction officer, had been there just a day earlier on Wednesday – although Salzhauer didn’t know why.
Salzhauer added that the north building of Champlain was almost identical to the south building, and feared that the residents of the north tower could also be in danger.
“The loss of life is terrible,” said Salzhauer. “But it is also important to know why this happened and what we can do to prevent it.”
Jeff Rose, a Surfside resident and contractor whose parents live in the building – and who was thankfully in Colorado when it collapsed – said he was doing renovations for various units in the building. Rose said work on the roof began about six weeks ago, and concrete refurbishment is also under way to mend old or damaged concrete.
But Rose said he saw nothing out of the ordinary there.
“I didn’t notice anything I haven’t seen in many other buildings in South Florida,” said Rose.
Salzhauer said a resident of Champlain South told her that during construction on the building next door – 8701 Collins Ave., known as Eighty Seven Park – the Champlain building “shook” and there were “cracks” in the building as a result.
The maximum building height at Surfside is 12 stories. Eighty Seven Park in Miami Beach is 18 stories high.
Rose and Salzhauer said Champlain residents also have concerns about water leaking from a pool deck on the second floor into the parking garage below.
It wasn’t clear on Thursday whether these issues had anything to do with the collapse of the beachfront portion of the apartment, which affected around 55 residential units. At around 3 p.m., 99 people were still missing, officials said.
Atorod Azizinamini, chairman of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the FIU College of Engineering and Computing, said that such building break-ins are extremely rare and usually involve a “perfect storm” of multiple factors.
“Usually these breakdowns are the result of some mistake, maybe negligence, or some unusual occurrence,” Azizinamini said.
He said the building’s proximity to the ocean could certainly be a factor – high-rise buildings often have balconies that are exposed to salt water, which can lead to corrosion.
Kevin DuBrey, the director of project management at Hillman Engineering in Fort Lauderdale – who has conducted inspections on other buildings for 40 years – told the Herald that salt water can seep into the concrete of buildings by the sea and corrode the steel inside.
He said he inspected buildings that needed evacuations because walls needed to be replaced, but never because of the imminent risk of collapse.
“Buildings don’t usually reach this point,” he said. “Normally you would probably know that in advance.”
The engineer hired by the Champlain Towers as part of the 40-year recertification was Frank Morabito, according to an attorney for the building’s condominium association. Morabito could not be reached for comment.
Greg Batista, a professional Davie engineer who specializes in concrete repair projects, said after seeing the Surfside condo tower fall to rubble on online videos, he saw a potential structural flaw.
“Chipped concrete.” Here’s what it means.
Batista said that when salt water seeps into porous concrete, it causes the reinforced steel bars known as rebars in the support beams to rust and expand. The stretch, in turn, breaks up the concrete and that weakens the beams.
It’s like “concrete cancer” spreading, said Batista, who worked on the planters on the pool deck of the Champlain Towers South Condo building in 2017.
“As soon as the cancer spreads, the concrete breaks up and gets weaker over time,” Batista said. “My best guess is that this happened. This building has a garage on the lower floors. If you have a crevice that is exposed to chipping it becomes the no. I’m guessing here it could fail. This one beam could cause the whole building to collapse like a domino effect. “
Batista, who has worked as an engineer in South Florida for 30 years, said older condos, apartment complexes, and hotels near the ocean routinely deteriorate from salt water and other elements.
Azizinamini, the FIU’s technical chairman, said Miami-Dade County may need to reassess its 40-year recertification process, especially for structures in coastal areas. In general, construction officials do not inspect structures after they receive initial building permits and before the 40-year mark, unless local residents or property owners report specific concerns.
“I think we need to do a better job on our inspections,” he said.
Azizinamini said it could take “months” to determine what happened, a process where investigators review design plans, take concrete samples, speak to building planners and finally create a computer model to simulate the collapse.