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Team of national scientists to visit Surfside collapse site

NIST will decide whether to do a full investigation to determine cause

The federal oversight team that investigated the World Trade Center collapse will begin probing the Surfside condo collapse to see if it merits a full national investigation.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – The federal oversight team that investigated the World Trade Center collapse is now starting the process of probing the Surfside condo collapse.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is sending a team of six scientists and engineers to the site of Thursday’s partial building collapse at Champlain Towers South “to collect firsthand information,” the NIST confirmed to Local 10 News on Monday.

That information will be used “to determine if an investigation or study will be conducted” by the NIST.

These NIST experts plan to work with local, state, and federal authorities to “identify and preserve materials” that the national group says could aid the understanding of why the building collapsed.

A NIST spokesperson said circumstances on the ground will determine the timeline of when the team plans to provide a recommendation of whether a full investigation should be conducted, but the plan is for that recommendation to be completed in the “next week or two.”

“If a National Construction Safety Team (or NCST) is established,” a NIST spokesperson said, “we expect that an investigation will take months to years to complete. Previous investigations have taken at least two years to complete.”

NIST has conducted four investigations “using the NCST Act authorities,” which include:

This would be their first look into a collapse that wasn’t tied to an obvious cause such as a storm, fire or terrorist attack.

“They’ve never done just a straight building collapse,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

If NIST chooses to conduct a full investigation or study into the Surfside building collapse, the goal of the reports “would be to determine the technical cause of the collapse and, if indicated, to recommend changes to building codes, standards and practices, or other appropriate actions to improve the structural safety of buildings.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology may decide to do a full investigation into the condominium collapse, which could lead to changes to national building codes.

The National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act, signed into law on Oct. 1, 2002, by President George W. Bush, authorizes the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish teams to investigate building failures.

It is modeled after National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates transportation accidents.

The NIST launches teams of experts to assess building and infrastructure procedures in the wake of what it calls “disaster and failure events” that result in a “substantial loss of life” or can pose a significant potential of substantial loss of life. These events can include national disasters or construction/design failures or terrorist attacks.

If the NIST does a full investigation, it could lead to building code changes on a national level to prevent similar tragedies.

“The issue is the questions around the structural damage to the pool, that area that has been mentioned, and other different points of weakness. They will look through that preliminary investigation and determine whether they open a full investigation,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “And that is triggered when they get a sense of, after their preliminary review, whether or not any decisions and fact-finding that they engage in as a result of that investigation can have longer-term implications and recommendations for how we change federal oversight, federal law related to building construction and the kind of code enforcement decisions that’ll have to be made on the ground.”

[ALSO SEE: Surfside tower had ‘major structural damage’ — but enough to cause a collapse?]

Public records about Champlain Towers South — which was in the 40-year recertification process when the collapse happened — document items of concern from concrete spalling and column cracks to a serious issue with failed waterproofing under the pool deck, which a consultant in 2018 said was causing major structural damage to a concrete slab below.

“These kinds of maintenance issues are not abnormal, to me what’s abnormal is there were so many of them, that they were three years old,” said Peter Dyga, President and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors Florida East Coast Chapter. “There were already issues in 2018. Here it is 2021 and they just weren’t taken care of.”

What extent did these known issues play a role in the collapse, and could there be other contributing factors — from a possible construction or design defect to an environmental impact? That is the tough and tedious structural detective work investigative teams are just beginning.

“It’s probably going to end up being a combination of things,” Dyga said. “The reason we are all so shocked by this is because this is not an everyday occurrence. In fact, once in a lifetime, really, when it comes to a building just on its own coming down.”


About the Author:

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."