A high-rise condo building in Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed early Thursday morning, leaving at least nine people dead and more than 150 people missing. Search-and-rescue teams continue to look for survivors, using heavy machinery and their own hands to dig through the smoking rubble, but no one has been pulled alive from the building since Thursday morning, and hope is fading that anyone else could have survived. On Friday, President Biden declared a state of emergency at the site and authorized FEMA to coordinate disaster-relief efforts. The wing of Champlain Towers South that collapsed included more than 50 homes; so far 120 people who lived or worked in the building have been accounted for. The Miami Herald has published a guide on how to help the victims and their families. Below is what we know about the disaster and its unfolding aftermath.
Search and rescue continues, but no additional survivors have been found
At least 55 of the 136 apartments in the 12-story building collapsed, according to the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department leading the response. Rescue efforts on Thursday pulled 37 people from the building, including two people found in the rubble — but no one else has been pulled out alive since Thursday morning.
As of Sunday morning, nine people had been confirmed dead, after several additional victims were recovered from the rubble overnight Saturday. The biggest obstacle search-and-rescue teams faced this weekend was a fire under the rubble that they have been unable to isolate and extinguish.
Groups of ten to 12 rescuers are working in the rubble until they grow tired and a new team takes over. “They’re not going to stop just because of nightfall,” the state’s fire marshal, Jimmy Patronis, told Miami television station WPLG. “They just may have a different path they pursue.” Miami-Dade fire chief Jason Richard told CNN that crews are searching the site methodically, “making sure that there’s no movement, every piece of rubble that we move, we have to take, make efforts to stabilize the building, inch by inch.” As rescuers searched, family members gathered at a community center near the collapsed condo, anxiously hoping to reunite with their loved ones.
“I want to be very clear about the numbers. They’re very fluid,” Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the press on Friday. “We will continue search and rescue because we still have hope that we will find people alive.”
Why did the building collapse?
It is not yet clear what caused the 40-year-old building to buckle in on itself. Structural engineers, fire officials, and the Miami-Dade County Police Department will investigate the structure once search and rescue has finished. In the aftermath of the collapse, there have been reports of several structural issues at the building, though there is no direct link between any of them and the collapse, at least not yet. The Miami Herald reported Friday that “several engineering experts, speaking from experience and reviewing chilling surveillance footage that showed the northeast, beachfront portion of the building collapsing around 1:20 a.m. Thursday, suggested a number of factors could have played a role, including saltwater corroding the concrete and potentially weakening beams that hold up the structure.”
On Sunday morning, Surfside mayor Charles Burkett emphasized in an interview that “buildings don’t fall down in America. There was something obviously very, very wrong at this building, and we need to get to the bottom of it, but not today, not tomorrow and not for a long time, because our first priority and our only priority is to pull our residents out of that rubble.”
The building was going through a county-mandated recertification process and was about to undergo extensive repairs.
A lawyer representing the resident-led association that operates the building has said that Champlain Towers South was about to undergo extensive repairs recommended by engineers so that the building would meet structural standards in order to obtain a 40-year recertification. That recertification process, which is mandated by the county, requires buildings to hire electrical and structural engineers to inspect the structure, then perform the repairs they advise. Surfside officials had told reporters that they hadn’t received any documents regarding the recertification from the building yet.
Some of the multimillion-dollar repair work, on the building’s roof, had already begun. Concrete restoration was reportedly among the repairs that had not yet been started.
A 2018 report identified an important development error that was causing “major structural damage” to the building.
Records released by Surfside officials on Friday night revealed that a 2018 inspection of the Champlain Towers South condo by an engineering consultant identified a flaw in the original development of the building that was causing structural damage. It’s not yet clear whether or not the issue played a role in the partial collapse of the building, but the report now looms large as a potentially crucial warning sign regarding Champlain Towers South’s structural integrity.
The engineer, Frank Morabito, wrote in the report that the “main issue” at the structure was how the pool deck and outdoor planters had originally been “laid on a flat structure,” a “systemic issue” which was the result of a development error when Champlain Towers South was built. The lack of a slope prevented standing water from being able to drain off the pool deck. Instead, the water sat on the waterproofed concrete until it evaporated, but at the time of the inspection, the pool-deck waterproofing had failed and was “causing major structural damage to the concrete slab below these areas.” The report also noted evidence of distress and fatigue in the concrete and columns, beams, and walls of the parking garage below the pool and planter deck.
The report warned that “failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.” Morabito did not indicate that the damage could lead to the building’s collapse, only that the repairs were necessary for “maintaining the structural integrity” of Champlain Towers South.
Morabito also noted that replacing the waterproofing would be a time-intensive and “extremely expensive” undertaking, which would “be disruptive and create a major disturbance” for the building’s residents.
For reasons which are not yet clear, it does not appear that the waterproofing and structural damage were addressed. In late April, Morabito’s firm prepared recommendations for the building’s 40-year recertification process, including “significant concrete repairs at the pool area as well as foundation walls,” according to the Miami Herald.
According to the New York Times, Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer representing the condo association, said Saturday that the condo’s board had not been warned that the damage posed a safety threat:
“If there was anything in that report that really outlined that the building was in danger of collapse, or there was a hazardous condition, would the board and their families be living there?” she said. She noted that one board member, Nancy Kress Levin, was missing in the collapse, as were her adult children.
The association had taken out a $12 million line of credit to pay for the repairs and was going through a careful, step-by-step process to get them done, Ms. Berger said. She said that such a process could seem more like moving a commercial tanker than a speedboat, always involving pushback and debate as board members decided on what to tackle first and how much of a cost to impose on homeowners. “Nobody likes a special assessment,” she said.
Surfside’s building department was forwarded a copy of the engineer’s report in late 2018, but the town’s mayor, Charles Burkett, said Saturday he didn’t yet know if or how the town followed up on the report.
A recent study concluded that the building had been gradually sinking, though it’s not clear if that was a factor in the collapse.
A 2020 study by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University, found that the Champlain Towers South building had been gradually sinking due to land displacement in the area. Per USA Today:
Wdowinski said his research is not meant to suggest certainty about what caused the collapse. The building was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s and could have slowed or accelerated in the time since, he said. In his experience, even the level of sinking observed in the 1990s typically results in impacts to buildings and their structures, Wdowinski said. He said that very well could have been the case for the Champlain building in the 1990s, based on his findings.
Mayor of Miami-Dade County has ordered an audit of all older buildings
Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced Saturday that she had ordered a 30-day audit of all buildings 40 years and older in the county.
Video footage of the collapse
Security-camera video from a nearby building captured the structure buckling at approximately 1:30 a.m. Thursday:
Survivors describe a harrowing night
Residents were jolted awake by the cacophony early Thursday morning, which some thought was a thunderstorm at first.
“I thought to myself, The roof is caving,” Bruno Treptow told the Miami Herald. “I turned to my wife, and she wakes up startled. And she says, ‘No, it can’t be,’” he said. “So I hug her. I give her a hug and say, ‘Listen, this is it. We’re gonna die.’” Two floors below, Alfredo Lopez opened his door to find nothing.
His home was about five feet away from calamity. Where the hallway with his neighbor’s doors should have been, there was nothing. Just billowing dust, sky and a dark beach. Half of a vertical community that stretched about 120 feet into the air had vanished.
“That complete side of the building was not there,” Marian said. “The apartments were gone.”
Dressed and ready to leave, Treptow stepped out of his unit. He faced the same surreal abyss. To one side, he saw only his neighbor’s doorframe. No door.
“Three families that I know well,” he later recounted, his voice cracking. He doesn’t expect that they’ll be found alive.
A class-action lawsuit has already been filed
Late Thursday night, a $5 million class-action lawsuit was filed against the building’s condo association by a resident in the tower, claiming it failed to “secure and safeguard” its residents. The suit seeks to compensate victims of the horrific collapse.
Photos of the aftermath
This post has been updated throughout to include new information.