Surfside building that collapsed was starting a critical inspection process. What went wrong?

Surfside officials have yet to release any public records that could shed light on the process.
It is unknown at this time how many people were injured as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
It is unknown at this time how many people were injured as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published June 25, 2021|Updated June 25, 2021

The Surfside condo building that partially collapsed early Thursday was built 40 years ago — a crucial milestone for most buildings in Miami-Dade County that requires them to seek expert opinions to ensure they’re still safe.

Now, in the absence of official statements about what may have caused the disaster — and as rescue workers scrambled to account for dozens of people who are still unaccounted for — speculation ran wild about what would cause such a calamitous event and whether there were any red flags.

Related: Miami condo collapse live updates: 99 now feared missing in rubble

Champlain Towers South, the 12-story, 136-unit complex at 8777 Collins Ave. that partially collapsed around 1:20 a.m., was early in its 40-year recertification process, according to city officials and others familiar with the building.

The process mandates that, once a structure turns 40, its owners must hire a registered architect or professional engineer to do electrical and structural inspections within 90 days of receiving official notice from the town.

If repairs are found to be necessary, the owner gets 150 days to complete them. The costs of repairs can be apportioned among the unit owners. And if the town’s building official determines the building to be unsafe, the case gets forwarded to the county’s Unsafe Structures Board for review.

Buildings then repeat that process every 10 years after the initial 40-year review.

It’s not clear what stage the review process had reached and whether anything had been flagged at Champlain towers, which consist of three adjacent buildings near 88th Street and Collins Ave.

Surfside officials have yet to release any public records that could shed light on the process.

“Due to the devastating and tragic event that occurred early this morning, we are diligently working on compiling records and will provide same as soon as possible,” said Town Clerk Sandra N. McCready in response to a Herald request for inspection documents.

But Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told the Herald that the Champlain South building’s roof was being redone, and that James McGuinness, the town’s building official, had been there just a day earlier, on Wednesday — although Salzhauer didn’t know why.

Salzhauer added that the Champlain North building is almost identical to the South building, and worried whether residents in the north tower might also be in danger.

“The loss of human life is horrible,” Salzhauer said. “But it’s also important to know why this happened, and what we can do to prevent this from happening again.”

Related: Tall buildings rarely just collapse. Could it happen near Tampa Bay?

Jeff Rose, a Surfside resident and contractor whose parents live in the building — and who, thankfully, were in Colorado when it collapsed — said he has performed condo renovations for various units in the building. Rose said work on the roof started about six weeks ago, and said concrete restoration was also underway to repair old or damaged concrete.

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But Rose said he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary there.

“I didn’t notice anything I haven’t seen in many other buildings in South Florida,” Rose said.

Salzhauer said one resident of Champlain South told her that, while construction was being done over the past few years on the building next door — 8701 Collins Ave., known as Eighty Seven Park — the Champlain structure was “shaking” and there were “cracks” in the building as a result.

The maximum building height in Surfside is 12 stories. Eighty Seven Park, which is located in Miami Beach, is 18 stories tall.

Rose and Salzhauer said residents at Champlain also had concerns about water leaking from a second-floor pool deck into the parking garage below.

It wasn’t clear Thursday whether those issues had anything to do with the collapse of the beach-facing portion of the condo, which affected about 55 apartment units. Around 3 p.m., 99 people were still unaccounted for, officials said.

Atorod Azizinamini, chair of the FIU College of Engineering and Computing’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said such building collapses are exceedingly rare and usually involve a “perfect storm” of multiple factors.

“Usually these collapses are a result of some mistakes, maybe some negligence or some unusual events that might take place,” 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 saltwater, he said, which can cause corrosion.

Kevin DuBrey, the director of project management at Hillman Engineering in Fort Lauderdale — which has conducted 40-year inspections at other buildings — told the Herald that saltwater can get into the concrete of oceanfront buildings and corrode the steel inside.

He said he has inspected buildings where evacuations were needed because walls needed to be replaced, but never because of the immediate potential for collapse.

“Usually buildings don’t get to that point,” he said. “Typically that would be something you’d probably know about in advance.”

The engineer retained by the Champlain towers as part of the 40-year recertification was Frank Morabito, according to an attorney for the building’s condo association. Morabito could not be reached for comment.

Greg Batista, a professional engineer from Davie who specializes in concrete repair projects, said that after watching the Surfside condo tower collapsing to rubble in online videos, one potential structural flaw jumped out at him.

“Concrete spalling.” Here’s what it means.

Batista said that when salt water seeps into porous concrete, it causes the reinforced steel rods known as rebar in the support beams to rust and expand. In turn, the expansion breaks up the concrete and that weakens the beams.

It’s like “concrete cancer” spreading, said Batista, who worked on the planter boxes on the pool deck at the Champlain Towers South Condo building in 2017.

“Once the cancer spreads, the concrete breaks up and becomes weaker and weaker as time goes on,” Batista said. “My best guess is that’s what happened here. This building has a garage on the lower floors. If you have one column subjected to spalling, the no. 1 suspect here, it could fail. That one beam could bring down the whole building like a domino effect.”

Batista, who has worked as an engineer in South Florida for 30 years, said that older condo buildings, apartment complexes and hotels near the ocean routinely deteriorate from exposure to salt water and other elements.

Azizinamini, the FIU engineering chair, said Miami-Dade County should perhaps reassess its 40-year recertification process, especially for structures in coastal areas. Generally, building officials don’t inspect structures after they receive initial approvals to be built and before the 40-year mark, unless residents or owners flag specific concerns.

“I think we need to do a better job in our inspections,” he said.

Azizinamini said it could take “months” to determine what happened, a process that will involve investigators reviewing design plans, taking samples of concrete, talking to building designers and ultimately creating a computer model to simulate the collapse.