Surfside tower had ‘major structural damage’ — but enough to cause a collapse?

Engineer reviews a 2018 report that showed ‘cracking’ and issues at Champlain Towers South

SURFSIDE, Fla. – A 2018 engineering report showed “major structural damage” at the Champlain Towers South condo building that collapsed this week, records released by the town of Surfside revealed.

But a structural engineer who reviewed those reports and photographs with Local 10 News said they don’t indicate flaws that would cause part of the building to suddenly come crashing down as it did early Thursday morning.

“These things are very unlikely to cause the building to collapse,” said Sinisa Kolar, a senior structural engineer with The Falcon Group. “Can they cause a balcony or piece or chunk of balcony to fall down? Yes. But the whole building as a result of these things? No.”

The report from the firm Morabito Consultants identified “abundant cracking and spalling” of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage and noted major damage that needed to be repaired on a concrete slab where the ground-floor pool deck sat.

The documents were released by the town late Friday after public information requests from Local 10 News and other media outlets. It comes as a search and rescue mission continues for more than 150 people who are unaccounted for and as the community searches for answers to how this tragedy could happen.

At least four people were killed.

[To see the full documents released by the town of Surfside, click here]

Local 10 News’ Christina Vazquez went over the photos in the report with Kolar on Saturday.

“The pictures that I’ve seen really don’t show substantial structural damage of the columns,” Kolar said. “Something that would be indictable stresses, rather than, let’s call it, relative corrosion.”

He said hairline cracks are not unexpected for a building 40 years old.

The Champlain Towers South was going through the mandatory 40-year recertification process, just beginning work on the roof, when the collapse happened.

Morabito, which was also consulted for that recertification process, released a statement Saturday saying in part:

“We completed our inspection and provided our report to the condominium association on Oct. 8, 2018, detailing our findings and recommendations. At that time, we also provided the condominium association with an estimate of the probable costs to make the extensive and necessary repairs. Among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.

“Champlain Towers South Condominium Association engaged our firm again in June 2020 to prepare a “40-year Building Repair and Restoration” plan with detailed specifications for completing the necessary repairs and restoration work. At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were underway, but concrete restoration had not yet begun. Our firm exclusively provides engineering consulting services. We do not provide construction-related services, such as building repair and restoration contracting.

“We are deeply troubled by this building collapse and are working closely with the investigating authorities to understand why the structure failed. As we do so, we also continue to pray for all those impacted by this tragic event.”

Local 10 News went over documents from a 2018 engineering report on the building with a structural engineer, who said those details alone shouldn't have cause the building to fall as it did.

Jason Borden, a structural engineer for O&S Associates, told ABC News that his firm conducted an hour-long site survey of the building in January 2020. He said what he observed “was typical of a 40-year-old building that had had some deferred maintenance,” in that parts of the building had reached their “expected useful life” and needed to be repaired or replaced.

Borden said his team did not see anything potentially catastrophic, or even out of the ordinary.

Kolar said that “this collapse is definitely an outlier,” which echoed the initial thoughts of John Pistorino, a structural engineer for 54 years who has been retained by an attorney to investigate the tragedy.

Pistorino — who has investigated the Miami Dade College garage collapse, the FIU bridge collapse and many others around the United States, and actually wrote the 40-year building recertification process — spoke to Local 10 News’ Jeff Weinsier on Friday.

“It’s unexplainable. I’m bewildered,” Pistorino said. “Concrete gives you a warning. It gives you a warning. It doesn’t fail that fast. ...

“The only other time I’ve seen something that dramatic, that quick was when we were imploding, demolishing buildings on purpose.”

[ALSO SEE: Surfside mayor expresses concern over Champlain South’s identical sister building]

While the 2018 engineering report from Morabito Consultants did not warn of imminent danger from the damage, it did note the need for extensive and costly repairs to fix the systemic issues with Champlain Towers South.

The report said the waterproofing under the pool deck had failed and had been improperly laid flat instead of sloped, preventing water from draining off.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replaced the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

The firm recommended that the damaged slabs be replaced in what would be a major repair.

Some of the damage to the concrete in the parking garage was minor, while other columns had exposed and deteriorating rebar. It also noted that many of the building’s previous attempts to fix the columns and other damage with epoxy were marred by poor workmanship and were failing.

Beneath the pool deck “where the slab had been epoxy-injected, new cracks were radiating from the originally repaired cracks,” the report said.

These were all problems that should have been dealt with quickly, said Gregg Schlesinger, an attorney specializing in construction defects and a former construction project engineer.

“The building spmoradocuments. “They (building managers) kicked the can down the road. The maintenance was improper. These were all red flags that needed to be addressed. They weren’t.”

The 12-story tower’s collapse raises questions about whether other similar buildings are in danger.

“Everyone now is going to want to know if their building is safe,” prominent Miami Beach real estate broker Jill Hertzberg told Local 10 News on Friday. “Everyone is saying, first of all their heart goes out, what can they do to help [the people of Surfside]. “But then, you know, everyone looks back to themselves and wants to know if their building is safe, if they’re OK. And I think people are going to be questioning and making sure.”

The land on which Champlain Towers sat has been gradually sinking, according to a study published last year by an environmental professor at Florida International University.

But the professor, Shimon Wdowinski, cautioned against blaming the collapse on the caving ground.

“In most cases, these buildings just move,” he said in a video released by the university. “There’s no catastrophic collapse like in the case in Surfside, which was very unfortunate.”

Another question is whether nearby construction might have caused vibrations that weakened Champlain Towers.

“There were garage underground issues related to that, to make sure that it was done soundly,” Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told Local 10 on Thursday. “And, to my understanding, there were some cracks from that project — minor cracks — that were just patched up. Nothing, based on my understanding, to the magnitude that would indicate that there was a structural problem that could result in something so catastrophic.”

[HOW TO HELP: Here’s a list of resources to support those impacted by the Surfside building collapse]

Experts have said it will take time to get the true answers to what happened, though local leaders including Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava have promised a detailed probe into this collapse and other buildings in South Florida.

Miami-Dade on Saturday announced an audit of “residential properties of five stories or higher at the recertification point — 40 years or older — that have not completed the process, in order to achieve compliance or to swiftly seek appropriate remedy which could include declaring unsafe structures or more immediate orders from the Building Official. The audit will start immediately and will be completed within 30 days.”

Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, Inc., told Local 10 on Thursday that it was far too early to conclude that building’s partial collapse had anything to do with its 40-year inspection process.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Never. Nothing even close,” Direktor said. “And there are a lot of buildings around Florida that have already done their 40-year certification and needed extensive work, but nothing like this happened. Which is why I don’t think we’re anywhere near a point where we can develop an understanding of what caused this or find any correlation between the 40-year certification and what happened to this building.”

In his early investigation of a surveillance video that showed the collapse, Pistorino concluded that something strange happened to this Surfside building.

“I think our buildings are fine,” Pistorino said. “We have no reason to fear if you are living in a high-rise. Something here is very unique. It is something I can’t answer right now, and that’s what’s bothering me.”

Local 10 News reporters Jeff Weinsier and Michael Putney, and the Associated Press, contributed information to this report.

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."