'I didn't see anything alarming,' engineer who visited Surfside condo last year recounts

Experts caution not to jump to conclusions over 'major structural damage'
A partial collapse at the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside on June 24, 2021.jpg
Posted at 5:37 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 18:58:05-04

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Nearly one week to the hour later, the hunt carries on for victims, survivors and answers into the deadly collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside.

"It's been tough. I just want to emphasize that. It's been tough," Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominksy said while addressing the media on Wednesday morning.

New drone video released by his department the night before shows the monstrous mountain of rubble rescue crews are having to meticulously sift through while facing so many risks and inclement weather. With each hour, the odds of success dwindle, but Cominsky said hope remains strong.

Aerial view of collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, June 25, 2021
Rescue personnel work at the remains of the Champlain Towers South condo June 25, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.

By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the county's mayor announced four additional victims had been identified, bringing the death toll up to 16, and 147 people remained missing.

While the focus remains on rescue and recovery, the press for answers into how and why this tower fell is a top priority for local, state and federal experts and investigators who will all be part of the forensic investigation into the cause of the deadly collapse.

Typical probes also involve reconstructing the building somewhere else to help determine the cause. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also reiterated her support for a grand jury probe into the tragedy.

Questions linger about whether the disaster was the result of overdue repairs and red flags ignored. Building documents released by the town so far only raise more questions.

Inspection of collapsed building pointed to problems, Champlain Towers South illustration
An earlier report of the Champlain Towers South condo uncovered cracking and spalling of concrete columns, beams and walls.

In newly released documents by the town of Surfside, permit documents reveal the tower's 13th-floor penthouse addition resulted in a town order to immediately cease construction of it in 1980 because the town attorney, at the time, determined the additional floor violated the town's code. A few days later, the council granted an exception for the additional floor to be constructed in the South tower and one of its sister towers nearby.

But most questions about the building's structural soundness have focused, thus far, on a 2018 inspection report conducted by Morabito Consulting, who was hired by the condominium's homeowners association as part of the building's mandated 40-year certification.

Morabito engineers found "major structural damage" as a result of drainage issues in the garage and under the pool deck. "Abundant cracking" was also noted in the report. However, nowhere in the report did the findings conclude or suggest emergency repairs needed to be made.

Jason Borden, a structural engineer for O&S Associates, did a walk-through of the building as recently as January 2020 and also didn't notice anything out of the ordinary for the size and age of the 136-unit tower.

"I'm 100% shocked," Borden explained. "I think I may be more shocked than most people. I spent about an hour on-site and walked through with the property manager and a resident who pointed out some issues they knew about in the building that they felt needed to be addressed."

Borden explained those issues included stucco deterioration, concrete cracking on balconies and in the parking garage. He did not look at the pool.

"I didn't see anything alarming or that made me feel unsafe in the building or have to do what we've done in the past at other locations," Borden said. "If we see something, we will direct the owner to immediately place shoring or immediately brace the situation to have it resolved and made safe. I didn't see anything that necessitated that action. The fact that this came down in the manner that it did completely blows me away."