Florida inspector reassured condo residents in 2018 despite engineer’s warning

GABRIELLA BORTER

A town inspector reassured residents in 2018 that the building that collapsed near Miami last week was in “very good shape,” just a month after an engineer warned that the high-rise had suffered major structural damage that required repair, according to an NPR report.

The 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside partially collapsed early on Thursday as residents slept, killing at least nine and leaving more than 150 people still missing.

Rescue crews are working around the clock, sifting through the rubble for signs of life even as hopes of finding more survivors grow dimmer by the hour.

The 2018 report prepared by an engineering firm for the condominium building found serious concrete deterioration in the underground parking garage as well as major structural damage in the concrete slab beneath the pool deck.

The engineer, Frank Morabito, reported the deterioration would “expand exponentially” if it was not repaired in the near future.

But Ross Prieto, a Surfside inspector who had reviewed the report, met residents the following month and assured them the building was safe, according to minutes of the meeting first obtained by NPR.

Prieto is no longer employed by Surfside, according to NPR. Reuters was unable to reach him but he told the Miami Herald newspaper he did not remember getting the report.

In an email to the town manager the morning after the 2018 meeting, Prieto said it had gone “very well” and that the response from residents was “positive.”

The cause of the collapse remains under investigation.

Gregg Schlesinger, a lawyer and former general contractor who specializes in construction-failure cases, said it was clear the deficiencies identified in the 2018 report were the main cause of the disaster.

But Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association, said the issues were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower with their families.

Morabito’s firm was also retained by the building in 2020 to prepare a 40-year building repair plan. Under Florida law, buildings must go through a recertification process after reaching 40 years of age.

Morabito Consultants said on Saturday that roof repairs were underway at the time of the collapse but concrete restoration had not yet started.

“We are deeply troubled by this building collapse and are working closely with the investigating authorities to understand why the structure failed,” the firm said.

Jason Borden, a structural engineer who surveyed the building last year, told CNN on Monday any signs of deterioration were typical for buildings in the seaside community and not serious enough to raise red flags.

“What I did see while I was there did not alarm me at all,” he said.

‘TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE’

Rescue workers were culling through the top of the rubble pile on Monday, both on foot and with a crane, aided by clear skies, though the forecast called for chance thunderstorms.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Maggie Castro told CNN on Monday morning that the effort was still a rescue mission.

“We are still attempting to find void spaces. We know that time is of the essence,” she said. “But, as you can imagine, it’s going to be less likely that we are going to be finding survivors.”

The teams included experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search. An American flag atop one crane rippled in the stiff ocean breeze.

Some relatives of those missing have provided DNA samples to officials, and family members were permitted to pay a private visit to the site by special arrangement on Sunday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

Police released the names of four victims who ranged in age from 54 to 83 – a couple married for 58 years, a volunteer Little League baseball coach and the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble shortly after the collapse.

Among those who have been identified were Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, and his mother Ana Ortiz, 46, whose bodies were recovered on Saturday.

At a makeshift memorial a block away, a laminated poster with a smiling photo of Bermudez and “Mom Ana Ortiz” hung from a chain-link fence, along with other “missing” signs. Flowers and children’s toys were strewn about the fence.

In a letter he shared on Facebook, Bermudez’s father wrote that his son was “My Angel My everything.”

“I LOVE you and love you forever,” Luis Didi Bermudez wrote. “You are and will be the best in my life.”

Given the scores of those still missing, the disaster may end up one of the deadliest non-deliberate structural failures in U.S. history.

Ninety-eight people perished when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., gave way from the weight of snow during a silent movie screening in January 1922. Two interior walkways collapsed into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, during a dance party in July 1981, killing 114.



 
 

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