Engineer found structural damage years before Miami building collapse, report shows

Fire hinders efforts to rescue 150 missing residents in Florida

Rescue crews picked through rubble looking for survivors after the collapse of part of the oceanfront apartment tower in Surfside near Miami. What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to tumble into a heap in a matter of seconds was not immediately known. Video: Reuters

 

The search for more than 150 missing residents of a Florida building that collapsed two days ago grew increasingly desperate on Saturday, as a smouldering fire hampered rescue efforts and officials said they have not located any signs of life in the mountain of debris.

A newly released 2018 report showed that an engineer found evidence of major structural damage beneath the pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage of the 12-story condominium, three years before it collapsed without warning on Thursday as most residents slept.

Despite around-the-clock work at the site in Surfside, a shore town near Miami, search-and-rescue teams had not found any additional survivors as of Saturday morning, Miami-Dade mayor Danielle Levine Cava told a news briefing.

Officials said they still harboured hope that some of the 159 people still unaccounted for might be found alive but acknowledged that a fire somewhere beneath the rubble was slowing rescue teams, filling the area with smoke and frustrating firefighters’ efforts to locate the source.

The death toll, officially at four, was certain to rise, with each floor of the high-rise stacked atop another like pancakes. Aided by dogs, cameras, sonar and heavy equipment, rescuers looked for any spaces that may have formed in the debris, leaving possible survivors air to breathe.

“The biggest thing now is hope,” fire chief Alan Cominsky said. “That’s what’s driving us. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”

The engineer’s 2018 report, released by town officials, was produced for the condominium board in preparation for a major repair project set to get under way this year. It was not immediately clear whether the damage described in the report was in any way connected with the building’s collapse at about 1.30 am local time on Thursday.

Ms Cava said officials had not been aware of the report. Vice mayor Tina Paul called the structural issue described in the document “very alarming” in an email on Saturday morning.

Waterproofing

The engineer, Frank Morabito, warned that the waterproofing installed below the pool deck had failed due to a major error in design.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas,” he wrote.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”

In addition, Mr Morabito said concrete columns, beams and walls in the garage were showing “abundant cracking,” including areas underneath the pool with “exposed, deteriorating rebar.” Morabito could not be reached for comment on Friday evening.

Morabito’s firm submitted an 84-page document to the town in April detailed a “40-year building repair and restoration” plan for the Champlain Towers South condominium, which was built in 1981. The condominium was preparing to go through recertification this year, a safety requirement for buildings that reach 40 years of age in Florida.

The mayor said the county will audit all buildings more than 40 years old within the next 30 days to ensure they have all been recertified.

Governor Ron DeSantis said officials were weighing whether to evacuate the condominium’s sister building, which was constructed at the same time by the same developer. Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking between 1 and 3 millimetres per year, while surrounding buildings were stable, according to Florida International University professor, Shimon Wdowinski.

He said the data could suggest a structural compromise within the building, though it could also have signalled the building was settling into the soil.

Aid

While local officials provided aid and comfort to the families, such as hotel rooms and food, search-and-rescue specialists worked the disaster site on a rotation, with a limited number allowed at any one time to prevent further collapse.

Teams from Mexico and Israel arrived to help relieve the locally based crews, many of whom have also travelled to disaster sites around the world.

The disaster occurred early on Thursday morning, when a large section of the 40-year-old building crumbled to the ground. Video captured by a security camera showed an entire side of the building suddenly folding in two sections, one after the other, throwing up clouds of dust.

The building had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied, officials said. Roughly half appear to have collapsed. –Reuters