The Surfside Condo Collapse
“[It was] like I was on a ride … The bed was shaking. My balcony doors opened. And it felt like the longest thunder I had ever heard in my life,” Susana Alverez, a survivor of the Surfside condo collapse, said. Her room was located on the tenth floor of Champlain Towers South.
On June 24, the 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, experienced a partial progressive collapse. At approximately 1:25 a.m. EDT, part of the building collapsed. Nine seconds later, units northeast to that section collapsed as well.
Less than two weeks later, the rest of the building was demolished using small explosives over concerns that parts of the damaged structure could fall on rescue crews operating below. Over the course of one month, rescue crews lifted 14 million pounds of concrete and debris in an attempt to rescue, then recover the bodies of former residents.
With a death toll of 98, the Surfside condo collapse is one of the deadliest structural collapses in United States history. 242 people lived in the complex. 97 residents died during the collapse. Only one person was rescued alive—to die as a result of injuries in a hospital.
On June 26, Daniella Levine Cava, the Mayor of Miami-Dade County demanded an audit of five-story buildings older than forty years as well as all buildings developed by Champlain Towers South Associates. The next day, Surfside hired structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer to investigate the collapse. Kilsheimer has worked on cases like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Florida International University bridge collapse.
“What you’re looking for is the condition of the materials and the design of the building, and then you’re looking for a trigger because something started this … The key is to find the trigger,” said Kilsheimer.
His team is currently investigating potential causes of the collapse—including degraded concrete in multiple areas of the building, a problem that Morabito Consultants, a company the condo association hired to assess the building, first reported in 2018.
In 2018, engineers from Morabito Consultants noted “major structural damage” to concrete below the building’s pool deck as well as within beams of the underground parking garage. The company provided the board with a report warning that extensive repairs were ""needed to ensure the safety of the residents and the public."" According to the report, developers had failed to adequately waterproof parts of the building, and as a result, concrete was rapidly deteriorating. This could have destabilized the building’s foundation, meaning unheeded reports contributed directly to the fateful collapse. Even if Kilsheimer confirms that a different trigger or triggers led to fatal collapse on June 24, the report from Morabito Consultants should have pushed the condo association to implement repairs.
In 2018, the aforementioned repairs would have cost an estimated $9 million. That amount ballooned as the years passed, and condo association board members decided not to act. In October 2019, a board member resigned, then wrote a letter saying, “The building is falling apart … Somebody can be injured or killed with the state of the concrete.”
It was only facing mounting costs and a recertification assessment prior to the building’s 40-year anniversary that in April 2021, condo association president Jean Wodnicki sent residents letters alerting them to the fact that without a $15 million cash pool for repairs, the concrete deterioration and damage would get much worse.
The association asked construction companies to submit repair proposals by July 7. Unfortunately, the bid or repair process was never initiated. Before the date could arrive, Champlain Towers South collapsed.
There’s a high chance the collapse was preventable. The warning signs were all present. It took the Surfside condo association three years to begin to act. Even then, they were most likely responding to a deadline as opposed to a genuine desire to protect residents given the details of the 2018 report.
Whether or not the water levels or corrosion were contributing factors to the collapse, they highlight the negligence of the condo association and the importance of reform. Developers should pay more attention to engineers’ structural concerns instead of negating them for monetary purposes. Perhaps developers will act more cautiously after the Surfside condo collapse, but awareness should not have had to be raised at the cost of human lives. Moving forward, there is much that has to be done.
Editors: Adele L., Evie F., Lillian H., Raniyah B. This article was originally written August 2021.