What Really Happened in the Miami Tower Collapse

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S1: The south end of the Champlain Towers condo complex in Miami collapsed in the middle of the night. There weren’t tourists milling around or people lounging on the beach to witness the tragedy or recorded on their phones days later. That means piecing together shards of what happened that night. You can watch security camera footage eerily silent, showing the tower pancaking down. You can listen to stunned cops responding on the police scanner

S2: to the entire building worth two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Well, this is a story. Oh, yes. Voter fraud has gone far.

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S1: However, none of this makes the collapse make any more sense. Now, at some tennis courts about a block away from the building, family members have been assembling their own remnants from the disaster. Bits and pieces from the lives of 149 people still missing in the rubble. Daniel Rivero, a reporter for the local public radio station WLS in. He’s been there.

S3: That area has really converted into a makeshift memorial. It’s there’s like a green mesh on the on the fence and people have just been slipping flowers into it. Photos of the people that are missing. The first responders have been going to and some of the most heartbreaking things, there are some things that first responders have gathered from the debris, like they they’ve taken little children’s toys. There’s like a Winnie the Pooh. Just covered in dust that they recovered from from the rubble and they they put it there to.

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S1: Danny was one of the first reporters on the scene after this building came down. He’s been in the town of Surfside, which isn’t too far from Miami Beach almost every day since, chronicling what’s still technically a search and rescue mission. When was the last time they were able to pull someone alive from the rubble?

S3: Do you know the first day, the the first day they did pull someone alive from the rubble and they sent them to the hospital and they later passed, but they were pulled alive. And then there was a 16 year old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble and is still here. His mother has been identified as one of the people who have passed, but he he is still here with us.

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S1: I wonder if the mood is changing at all. You mentioned how this tennis court is essentially serving as a memorial, but it seems like no one’s saying it out loud. The people are still holding out some hope that someone might be found alive.

S3: You know, I think it is changing, but there is a lot of unspoken things at play here. There is a sliver of hope, but I do think most people I’ve talked to that are, say friends of of some of the people that are missing, it does seem like they’re coming to terms with the fact that, you know, it might be a goodbye.

S1: Today on the show, unearthing what led to the beachside building collapse in Miami and how it could have been prevented, a Mary Harris, you’re listening to, what next? Stick around. When Danny Rivero phone rang at four thirty in the morning last Thursday and his editor was on the other end of the line, he knew it couldn’t be good and he was right.

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S3: He told me there was a partial building collapse and Surfside could I could I get up there? So I just threw my clothes on and grabbed my recorder and I went up there. I got there just about 5:00 in the morning. The sun was still down and it was dark outside. You couldn’t see anything. We didn’t we didn’t have any visuals of the scene. It wasn’t really clear to me what a partial condo collapse meant. But I met up with one of my colleagues just about sunrise that morning, and we still didn’t have a visual of anything that we didn’t know what we were actually out there to go report on. But there’s a park there just a couple blocks south of the of the the building where the collapse happened, which is, you know, it’s the park that I go to when I go to the beach. It’s like I go to this area all the time. So I went and there was a hole in the fence. So me and my colleague kind of jumped through the hole in the fence so we can get to the beach side and then walked up and. I saw it just as the sun was rising that first morning and said, oh my God, this is not a partial collapse. That word, that phrase doesn’t do justice to what happened because I could see just a massive pile of rubble from the sand. And there was people starting to to take their morning walks, joggers coming through. The police set up kind of a barricade and people were just on their morning jogs coming in and saying, what is this? What happened? Oh, well, that building collapsed and then, you know, you had people say, like, you know, like I have friends there, like in that in that condo right there, but it’s not there. You know, it was honestly heartbreaking.

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S1: At the time of this recording, the death toll from the accident stood at 12, but 149 residents were still classified as missing. Professional search and rescue teams were still picking through the rubble, working through extremely difficult conditions

S3: for the first couple of days, especially. I mean, there was heavy dust coming in from this this building, and it was just being kicked up by the winds. And there was there was fires in the rubble. So a lot of them were actually breathing that stuff in. There was heavy rains and thunderstorms. I mean, it’s the elements have not been very friendly here. One of my best friends is actually in the fire rescue squad and it’s been responding. And what does

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S1: he tell you?

S3: I mean, it’s hard work. It’s it’s it’s hot work. It’s nothing they have not been trained for. They are trained for this kind of thing. But is that what’s different about this? Is that they’re breathing in who knows what? So you think about you know, he told me like look at the aftermath of 9/11, all the stuff that that the first responders had to deal with. I mean, I don’t know if that’s going to play out, but I will tell you, he told me that he’s worried about that for himself and also just for his his colleagues. You know, they’re in there in the thick of it.

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S1: Can you tell me about some of the people you met who lived in the Champlain Towers? Like what have they told you about? What it’s been like to live through this moment.

S3: You know, it’s just it’s just a total shock to the system, nobody nobody expected this, and it’s. I know some of the people I’ve talked to, I don’t even think that is fully hit them. What happened?

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S1: Yeah, some of the people you’ve talked to, there was an element of randomness to their stories. Like they just happen to decide not to stay in their apartment that night and sort of left minutes before the building collapsed. Can you tell that story?

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S3: Right. Well, there’s actually a couple of those stories, which is the the crazy part. You know, one one guy, me and my colleague talked to Colombian American. There was a big Colombia match for for soccer. Yeah. Yeah. And he was watching it at a friend’s house that night. And he just decided, uh, I’ll just I’ll just sleep on my friend’s house, you know, whatever. It’s a Thursday. I have work in the morning. I’ll figure it out. He slept at his friend’s house. His apartment would have been gone, he told us, you know, I was about to go home, take a shower and die and for whatever reason. I didn’t do it, you know, and then here I am, you know, one of the the people I remember interviewing there was Justin Willis, who actually the picture of University of Connecticut college team. He was just visiting, you know, and he described, you know, there was a big boom. It felt like an aircraft taking off and then basically his family. Went on the balcony and the firefighters, once they got out there, they said they like leave the building they left and the condo next to them was gone, like it was just completely gone.

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S1: Like literally the apartment next to them, right?

S3: Yeah. Like the way he said 15 feet to the left. And I wouldn’t even be standing here. But I’m you know, I’m talking to him and his dad and his mom and they’re it’s like nervous laughter. You know, it’s like how else do you respond to this kind of thing and. I think that’s changing now because some of that hope, as we talked about earlier, might be waning. You know, the it’s been extremely hot. There’s been fires down there. There’s been heavy rains. The prospect of people walking away from this that that are not already accounted for is going down. So I think some of that just shock is starting to wear off. And I think people are entering the grief stage and people are also starting to get angry. I mean, this didn’t this didn’t happen for no reason. And even though it came out of nowhere, in a sense, it did not come out of nowhere. You know, there were reasons behind the why this happened.

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S1: When we come back in the race to figure out why this condo collapsed, there is plenty of blame to go around. An important thing to know about Champlain tower s this building that collapsed is that it’s a condominium. Different people own individual units and wlrn repairs have to be made to the building as a whole. They’ve got to find a way to pay for them collectively. They elect a board that manages these kinds of decisions. All the way back in 2018, the condo board retained an inspector who assessed the stability of the tower. He found a major error in the integrity of the bottom floor of the building. Residents were informed of the problem, but then they spent years negotiating how and whether to fix millions of dollars of damage.

S3: There were structural deficiencies identified that probably went back all the way to the construction of this building. And a lot of it has to do just with the fact that the pool deck was built flat, which is a huge no no. I mean, even me as a non construction person knows you don’t build flat. Why you don’t build flat because water accumulates on flat and then it will sweep down and cause structural damage. I mean, you don’t build. At least in Florida and other parts of the country, but you don’t build a flat roof, you build a sloped roof so that if it rains, it doesn’t pool on your roof and cause leaking. But what this engineer report found is that going back to the very beginning of this building, basically they built a concrete slab that was flat for the pool deck. And what that meant over years and decades we’re talking about is that water, as it accumulated from rain or from storm surges, which happen every once in a while, it was seeping down into that and causing, you know, changes at the geologic level you’re talking about. This was accumulating under there and causing issues on the pillars that the building stands on that the whole property stance on.

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S1: Do we know if residents in the building fought the repairs, said like maybe this isn’t necessary?

S3: We do know actually the USA Today had a fantastic story out on Monday evening. A heartbreaking story, too, though, because it really documents. Over the course of the last couple of years, the condo board had been pushing for residents to get on board for these repairs and they couldn’t get people on the same page. And the longer they pushed it back, the higher the costs got because the repairs became much. It accelerates if you don’t address it and because it needed to be this collectivize kind of decision, they couldn’t reach that kind of decision and they couldn’t make the repairs that needed to be done.

S1: And this was in addition to the fact that just having a building on the beach means it’s subject to harsh conditions because you have all the salt water and salt air.

S3: Right? I mean, the fact is, we do know that properties that are right on the beach get more corrosion from the salt that comes from the salty air, from the the salt water that intrudes every once in a while, from just harsh winds and hurricanes. But at the same time, this is a structural issue that, like I said, likely goes back to the very building of this building. And there is also the inability of the condo board to get residents on board for paying for these repairs, you know?

S1: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing about this twenty eighteen report is that my understanding is that it wasn’t required. The condo board decided to do it and then they got this information back. It’s kind of like careful what you wish for because the engineers basically like you need to shore up the entire building and then the question becomes who’s going to pay for all that?

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S3: This is what the longer term story here is. It’s not just about one building collapse and the tragedy, although, of course it is. But this is going to force a whole scale reevaluation of how these things are handled, at least in the state of Florida. You know, should I mean, think of condo associations as like small scale socialism, right? You all have a have an ownership stake in this in this thing. You make decisions about it. Yeah. You have like the board, which is kind of like the Politburo. No, really, it is socialism. And the thing about socialism is that when you collectively own something, you collectively make a decision about it. Well, some of those decisions are going to be very hard.

S1: Well, the board is elected, so if you’re trying to keep your seat, you don’t want to be making that expensive decision and you might have.

S3: Exactly, exactly. And the big long term story we’re going to be dealing with here in Florida is should boards be given as long at least as they are given by the state of Florida? They have so much leeway to do what they want and so little oversight by the state or government at any level, at any level. They’re really up to their own devices and. You know, crises bring reevaluations of things, and I think now people are openly asking, you know, should condo boards be doing all this when there is kind of an inherent conflict of interest? You know, even if you’re you’re elected? Well, you’re likely an owner in that condo. You know, you could be putting yourself on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit and repairs.

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S1: Well, my understanding is that the city came in the city of Surfside itself to kind of evaluate the engineer’s report and give an assessment to the condo board and give their opinion. And when they did that, they kind of said this damage isn’t that big of a deal. And that might have contributed to the delay. So I agree with you that people have different incentives, but do you think the city itself is going to end up bearing any responsibility for what happened here?

S3: I do think that is going to come into effect at some point. I mean, I don’t know who to point the finger at. I mean, we’ll see. But clearly, the city had a role in all of this, too. And, you know, if they weren’t relaying that information with the gravity that they should have been releasing that information to the residents, then then that’s an issue. If they were downplaying it, that’s going to be an issue. I mean, there are things coming out, but we I mean, we still don’t have the full, full picture quite yet. But but the county government has launched emergency audits streamlined within 30 days of of any building in the unincorporated county, which is kind of confusing. But it is a thing. The unincorporated county over 40 years old and five stories up and the city of Miami is doing their own emergency audit. City of Miami Beach is doing their own things, a couple other municipalities. So the governments all are reacting to this because there is a lot of fear happening because nobody wants their building to be part two and they’re trying to really identify, you know, what are the buildings that are most in crisis right now that need to be addressed immediately to stop something like this from happening again?

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S1: I mean, earlier this week. Pictures came out of water damage at the Champlain Towers, they were taken just a couple of days before the collapse occurred by a pool maintenance guy who came in and was looking at some of the issues you raised about the flatness of the pool deck and the fact that water was seeping down. And it’s the same way you talked about near misses with the people. There’s photographic evidence. Clearly, the guy was concerned. He said there was standing water that had seeped all the way down to the parking lot. And you just wonder what if it had been addressed earlier?

S3: It’s a big what if and that and that’s that is what’s causing a panic locally because. I mean, there are I don’t know the exact number of condo buildings here, but there is a shit ton of condo buildings here and you can’t put off these these repairs that need to happen. You know, part of the reason people buy condos is because they’re cheaper. And as soon as you start throwing in well, you need to pay twenty five thousand dollars into this this repair that scares scares the crap out of people. So people have been putting it off. I will say. I mean this. Is throwing a huge I mean, I can’t overstate how how big this wrench that this is throwing into our local and regional and state economy, actually like condos and the development of condos and the mortgage brokers that helped get the financing, the insurers that insure the realtors who sell the you know, the investors who buy and flip. If Florida has one main driver of industry like this, is it that is what we do. That is the story of Florida. And I think we’re we’re seeing a lot of anxiety about this. This is going to force a whole scale re-evaluation. Of like aware of the very places where millions of Floridians live.

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S1: So you’re really talking about. A situation that seems a little bit intractable where. Damage is normal in some ways for these buildings because they’re subject to such harsh conditions. There are inspections, but it takes a while for the condo boards to respond some of the time because of the incentives either way in terms of how much people can pay and how individuals may be impacted by that. I want to add one more thing to the mix. Like, can climate change potentially make some of these structural changes worse?

S3: I mean, that that is the open question, especially for these. Buildings that really sit on the coast, I think, you know, I don’t want to generalize too much, but we do know that buildings right on the coast that are that that get repetitive flooding like this area of Surfside does get high storm surge. And they have. They have sunny day flooding, they call it, you know, Surfside is actually the only city, to my knowledge, in the entire United States that actually has like a government fund set up for for relocation because of climate change. Their government has been actually very proactive about climate change, especially over the last couple of years. It is a small town, you know what I mean? But they have actually opened up an account where they’re taking some amount of dollars to put it into this pot so that down the road when Surfside becomes uninhabitable, they can actually help move people out of Surfside. Wow. So I don’t want to say I’m drawing a direct line between this and climate change. I will say it’s almost certainly one of the contributing factors.

S1: How long do you think you’re going to be reporting on this story, because you’ve laid out these massive structural issues that could take months or years to fix?

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S3: I mean. We’ll probably be on this for the next couple of years. I think we can already safely say at this point just because. They’re not you know, they’re still sorting through the rubble right now, but there’s all these audits going on about these these unsafe structures are potentially unsafe structures and the in Miami-Dade County. Now, what are the results of all those? We already have a shortage of of inspectors and construction workers here. Right. What happens when all these buildings that have been putting off repairs for for a long time? What happens when they all decide at the same time that they want to do work on that? You know, like the tentacles of this thing? I foresee going extremely deep into everything in the state of Florida. And I mentioned earlier that like condo building is our state’s industry. Like, I literally mean that like the the state of Florida was basically considered a wasteland until developers figured out that they could sell the dream of Florida. I’m not exaggerating on this. Our economy over history has basically been a pyramid scheme of developers and people marketing the dream of Florida to come down to Florida. It’s so beautiful. It’s so carefree. Well, now we have someone to care about. You know, this is this is a serious thing that this tragedy has brought to the forefront. And I think we’re going to be dealing with it for a very long time.

S1: Daniel Rivero, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Thank you, Mary.

S1: Daniel Rivero is a reporter and a producer for Larin in Miami, and that is our show, What Next is produced by Davis Land, Daniel, Hewitt Carmel Delshad, Olina Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We could help each and every day from Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.