Experts in Surfside condo collapse probe named, investigation likely to take years

SURFSIDE 8 7.6.21
'We want to ensure that tragedies like this never, ever happen again.'

Leaders of a federal probe into what caused the Champlain Towers South condominium to collapse two months ago have announced key experts who will head up different parts of the complex project, which is likely to take years.

The investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology is meant to provide a “third-party perspective focused on the science,” NIST Director James Olthoff said Wednesday.

He told reporters his organization aims to get to the bottom of why the residential tower in Surfside fell June 24, killing 98, but it won’t assign blame.

“Our investigations are fact-finding, not fault-finding,” he said. “The goals of our Champlain Towers South investigation will be to understand the technical cause or causes of this collapse and use that information to make building safer across the United States. We want to ensure that tragedies like this never, ever happen again.”

Preliminary work for the NIST investigation began shortly after the condo fell. In the days, weeks and months since, NIST personnel and Miami-Dade County search and recovery workers have moved vital evidence from the collapse site to a secure storage area under the protection of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said NIST Materials and Structural Division Associate Chief Judith Mitrani-Reiser, who is co-leading the investigation.

There are many theories for what caused the collapse. The team NIST assembled, she said, “will investigate all potential hypotheses that could explain what happened,” from how the tower was designed, built, modified and maintained to what materials were used in its construction and the condition of the building, its foundation and the ground it stood upon at the time of collapse.

“We are going into this with an open mind and with no preconceived notions,” she said.

The nearby Champlain Towers North, for which some local officials have expressed concerns, will not be part of the investigation.

NIST will update the public regularly through its website and in press briefings. But until the investigation is near completion and NIST publishes a draft report for public comments that will inform a final report, no findings from the investigation will be released to the public — with one exception.

“We do have a professional and ethical responsibility to inform the public if we find any safety concerns that may affect the Champlain Towers North and any other buildings,” she said.

The investigation will take time — probably years. NIST gained authority to investigate structural collapses in October 2002, when former President George W. Bush signed the National Construction Safety Team Act after 9/11. Since then, the organization has conducted four investigations: the World Trade Center disaster, the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and Hurricane Maria’s impacts in Puerto Rico in 2017.

The shortest of those inquiries took more than two years. The longest stretched on for six years. The Surfside investigation marks the first time NIST will study a structural failure not linked to a natural disaster, fire or act of terrorism.

“We are in our final days of evidence collection at the site of the collapsed building,” she said.

Structural and mechanical engineer Glenn Bell, co-director for the Structural Safety Organization and founder of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Technical Council on Forensic Engineering, is co-leading the probe.

Bell’s investigative work spans more than 45 years, including analyses for NIST of World Trade Center Towers 1 and 2.

Presently, 14 NIST members will lead five projects. Additional experts are expected to join as the scopes of those projects demand.

The projects include:

— Building and Code History, which will assess Champlain Towers South from its original design through its collapse, including relevant codes and standards, design drawings and other documents, construction records, inspection, maintenance, renovations and environmental conditions the tower experienced over its life. Civil engineers Jim Harris and Jonathan Weigand, both experts in the loading and response of structures, will co-lead the project.

— Evidence Preservation, which will involve tagging, collecting and organizing data, as well as interviews of residents, first responders, family members of Champlain Towers South residents and others with knowledge of the building. Co-leading the project are research chemist David Goodwin, who specializes in the degradation of materials, and structural engineer Christopher Segura, whose research and field work centers on reducing risks to buildings by earthquakes and extreme loads.

— Materials and Science, which will evaluate the strength, appropriateness, uniformity and deterioration used in building features and on different floors of the tower. The project co-leaders are NIST mechanical engineer Scott Jones and Cornell University civil and environmental engineering professor Ken Hover, a former captain with the U.S. Army Combat Engineers who investigated the 1979 collapse of Rosemont Horizon and was a consultant for concrete durability during the Panama Canal expansion.

— Geographical Engineering, which will evaluate the foundation’s design, as-built construction and current condition, as well as geotechnical and soil factors that may have affected it. The project co-leaders are University of Illinois civil and environmental engineering professor Youssef Hashash, whose field work includes forensic engineering on the Port of Alaska in Anchorage and San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, as well as post-disaster reconnaissance and analyses; and Sissy Nikolaou, a geotechnical and foundation engineering expert who leads NIST’s Earthquake Engineering Group and is a past director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and Applied Technology Council.

— Structural Engineering, which will use evidence from the collapse site, the results of all other projects, and structural engineering and reinforced concrete design knowledge to generate computer models to simulate the failure initiation and its progression. University of California, Berkley civil and environmental engineering professor Jack Moehle, an expert in collapse assessment of reinforced concrete construction, and structural engineer Fahim Sadek, who led structural performance and aircraft impact damage analyses as part of NIST’s World Trade Center investigation, will lead the project.

NIST will add members and expertise based on the project’s scope and demands, said Mitrani-Reiser, who grew up in Miami after immigrating from Cuba. Her grandmother lived “a short walk” from Champlain Towers South.

“This is my hometown. I am deeply committed to finding out why this building collapsed,” she said, adding that input from the public is encouraged. “If you have any photos, videos or other information that you think might help us, please submit those through our data portal. We want to know everything we can about Champlain Towers South, from the time it was designed until the moment of collapse.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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