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UPDATED, June 28, 6:55 p.m.: When the ocean-facing portion of the 12-story Champlain Tower South condo building in Surfside partially collapsed before 2 a.m. Thursday, it injured dozens and likely killed many more. Eleven have been confirmed dead.
The count of people who remained totaled 150 more than four days after the collapse.
More than 70 of 135 units were destroyed or damaged. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 130 people were accounted for.
As the investigation continues, experts speculate that the complex, built in 1981 by the late developer Nathan Reiber, could have fallen due to a number of issues. They include structural work related to its required 40-year recertification, deterioration over time, or even the construction of a luxury condo tower next door.
A Florida International University study concluded last year that the building was on land that had been subsiding.
Professor Shimon Wdowinski, who conducted the study, said Champlain Tower was sinking at about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s, although the rate may have changed since then, according to USA Today.
A unit owner filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit over the collapse. Manuel Drezner, who is seeking class action status, filed the suit late Thursday against the Champlain Towers South condo association, seeking more than $5 million in damages.
The complaint alleges the association could have prevented the collapse “through the exercise of ordinary care, safety measures and oversight,” and follows public statements made by the association’s attorney, Ken Direktor, who said that repair needs had been identified for structural issues but those repairs had not been completed.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has been shoring up the portion of the building at 8777 Collins Avenue that did not collapse, according to authorities. A fire broke out at the site Thursday afternoon. The building is two blocks away from Arte, the oceanfront condo tower where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are renting a unit.
Dozens gathered at the Surfside Community Center at 9301 Collins Avenue, where authorities have set up a reunification center to help people find family and friends. Among the missing are relatives of Paraguay’s first lady Silvana López Moreir.
Authorities have rescued 35 people from the building, with 10 treated for injuries, including some who were transported to the hospital.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called the scene “traumatic,” during a press conference on Thursday afternoon. Air conditioning units can be seen dangling from the portion of the building still standing, exposing a cross section of the property. A bunk bed is visible from one unit. Balconies are sliced in half.
“TV doesn’t do it justice,” he said. The governor urged patience for answers as to what caused the collapse, saying engineers will be investigating.
DeSantis said authorities still are hopeful that survivors would be found. Crews continue to comb through the site with the help of sniffing dogs.
But Surfside Town Mayor Charles Burkett said during a morning press conference that rescue efforts likely won’t be as successful as hoped for, saying the “building has literally pancaked.”
Champlain South was undergoing its 40-year recertification process as is required in Miami-Dade County. In early April, JJI Supply, a West Palm Beach-based general contractor, received a notice of commencement for a re-roofing of the building. State records show Debra and Edward Campany of West Palm Beach lead the company.
Campany did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She also leads Campany Roof Company at the same address as JJI Supply.
Nattel Construction, led by the late Reiber, put up the condo building 40 years ago.
The Champlain complex’s three towers include the 111-unit Champlain Towers North and 99-unit Champlain Towers East, also built in the 1980s, according to his obituary. Both are across Northeast 88th Street from the south tower.
Nattel, which is listed as inactive in state corporate records, also lists Reiber’s wife, Carolee Reiber, and Miami attorney Mark Meland as directors. Meland, who did not respond to a request for comment, is married to Reiber’s daughter, Jill Reiber.
Bruce Masia, southeast regional vice president and partner at KW Property Management, said the developer would not be held responsible, as the statute of limitations has run out. Masia said the engineer handling the recertification has “a lot of skin in the game.”
The town of Surfside did not immediately respond to a public records request for information regarding the recertification and engineer involved.
The recertification process begins when the building hires an engineer to conduct a study and create a report that establishes the scope of work required to update the property. In many cases, throughout the process, additional problems are discovered. Buildings, especially those on the oceanfront, are also affected by deterioration caused by the salt water and other natural elements.
Unit owners and associations often try to bring the cost down, as the assessments required during the process can push people to sell their units or put owners in major debt.
Masia warned that small problems could become bigger problems.
Attorney Jason Kellogg, who represents associations for several oceanfront condominiums in Miami Beach, said this could have been an issue of concrete spalling created by the building’s proximity to the ocean. But it also is possible that there was a construction issue from the get-go that was a “ticking time bomb.”
For a building this size, the steel and concrete pilings have to be dug deep enough into the ground, but also done in a way to prevent impacts from a rising water table, said Kellogg, partner at Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman.
Even if there were issues from the original construction, a collapse could be triggered by exacerbating factors, such as nearby construction.
The 18-story, 66-unit Eighty Seven Park condo tower, with an underground parking garage, developed by Terra and partners, was completed in 2019, just south of Champlain Tower South.
Sergio Ubilla, South Florida director of engineering with KW Property Management & Consulting, said issues with the soil are less likely to have caused the collapse, as contractors would have inspected the ground prior to construction.
Condo associations should take the initiative to budget for annual inspections, even if they are not required by the county, Ubilla said.
These are visual walk-throughs to spot cracks, stains, peeling paint and other early signs of rebar corrosion or other deterioration. Corroded steel would expand and crack the concrete, indicating the concrete has to be removed to inspect the amount of damage and remediation needed. If issues are not addressed, then corrosion will continue, although gradually, he said.
“You don’t have to be an expert to see” the damage, Ubilla said.
News of the collapse has prompted concerns from other oceanfront building associations, with several of Kellogg’s and Masia’s clients contacting them on Thursday. The buildings Kellogg represents were built in the 1920s and 1930s.
“It’s going to be on everybody’s mind and everybody’s tongues,” he said.