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The collapse of the Surfside condo is an unprecedented tragedy. But it echoes a disaster that happened in New Zealand a decade ago.

An earthquake brought down a tower in 2011, one that was improperly designed.
The remains of the CTV building after it collapsed in an earthquake.
The remains of the CTV building after it collapsed in an earthquake. [ CARYS MONTEATH | Stuff Limited ]
Published Jul. 17

On June 24, the Champlain Towers South condominium complex in Surfside collapsed. The death toll has risen to nearly 100.

On the face of it, it seems like an isolated tragedy.

But a New York Times story recently reported that preliminary inspections of the rubble suggested that the structural elements of the condo lacked adequate steel reinforcement. And that this shortcoming may have contributed to its collapse.

In New Zealand, that news took us back to Feb. 22, 2011.

During the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch, the Canterbury Television (CTV) building collapsed, killing 115 people. It was the only building in the city to so utterly fail.

It’s important to stress that CTV and Champlain happened in different places, under different conditions, where different building regulations applied. One collapsed during an earthquake. The other just collapsed.

Even so, there are inescapable similarities. Buildings collapse because core structural elements are unable to withstand the forces placed on them, whether from an earthquake, the building’s own weight or something else. In Christchurch and Surfside, it appears elements of the buildings were weaker than intended because of inadequate design and/or construction. This made them more susceptible to those forces.

On CTV, a royal commission of inquiry found the central failures occurred at the design phase. The building was designed by an under-supervised engineer working out of his depth and, as a result, lacked sufficient strength. Some shortcomings were exacerbated during construction, but the root cause lay in the design. The Times story suggests the problem in Surfside appears to be construction not following design.

We explained key design flaws that led to the CTV tragedy in Stuff’s Collapse podcast, released in February. Since Surfside, we’ve had a spike in listeners from the United States. You can listen here.

Police and members of the public help rescue people from the collapsed CTV building.
Police and members of the public help rescue people from the collapsed CTV building. [ DON SCOTT | Stuff Limited ]

Having worked on that podcast, and spent countless hours combing through documents about the tragedy here, reading reports from America was a bit eerie.

Police spent four years investigating the CTV disaster. They initially considered charging the building engineer and his boss with 115 counts of manslaughter but backed down. Some victims’ family members continue to fight for accountability. They have been in contact with families in Florida to offer condolences but also caution about the long road ahead. Ten years on, blame-shifting, recriminations and exhaustive litigation on the CTV building continue to make headlines in New Zealand.

Michael Wright is a reporter for New Zealand’s Stuff website and a former fellow at the Tampa Bay Times.