'Tragedy beyond tragedy': Champlain Towers South was a catastrophe in slow motion

Champlain Tower East is located between the partially collapsed Champlain Tower South and its sister building, Champlain Tower North. Footage was shot after the Surfise condo building collap

By Rob Kuznia, Scott Glover, Curt Devine and Casey Tolan, CNN

(CNN) -- Sara Nir was up late, checking her email when she heard knocking sounds that went from a soft tapping to hard pounding to a frightful crash overhead -- as if a wall had collapsed in the unit above her ground-floor condo.

Raysa Rodriguez was sleeping in her room on the ninth floor when she awoke disoriented. The building was swaying "like a sheet of paper." She ran into the hallway to find that it had been impaled from floor to ceiling by a concrete pillar; the doors of the elevators were shorn off, exposing the shafts.

Cassie Stratton was on the phone with her out-of-town husband, looking down from her fourth-floor balcony in horror as part of the pool deck below apparently vanished into a sink hole.

She "told him that the pool was collapsing, that the ground was shaking and cracking," Stratton's sister, Ashley Dean, told CNN's John Berman. "It's my understanding that she let out a very loud scream and the phone went dead."

To many residents of the Champlain Towers South, the devastating partial collapse of the 13-story structure in Surfside, Florida, in the predawn hours of June 24 came on suddenly and left them traumatized, injured or dead in a matter of seconds.

But from what is known to date, the tower's cave-in resembles less a cataclysmic event than a slow-motion catastrophe, made possible by years of missed warnings, mixed messaging and delayed action, according to public records, including emails and inspection reports, as well as experts who have spoken with CNN.

"This is obviously a tragedy beyond tragedy, and there seems to have been signs of concern," said Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County. "We're obviously going to be part of the investigation -- the county is going to be doing everything in our power to make sure that we learn from this."

The disaster appears to have exposed some of the limitations of condo associations, which are made up of condominium owners with a vested interest in the property but that seldom possess much expertise in structural engineering. And it has raised questions about whether other residential structures could be at risk in Miami-Dade County, where sea levels are rising, the salty air is corrosive and nearly two-thirds of all commercial, condo and apartment buildings are as old or older than the 40-year-old edifice that went down, according to a CNN analysis of county records. Some have since been renovated or had newer additions added on to them.

To be sure, construction experts in Florida caution that a single deadly collapse doesn't mean other older buildings are necessarily at risk.

"You can have a 40-year-old building that has no issues and a 20-year-old one that does, and it all boils down to how well it was maintained," Peter Dyga, president of the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors, told CNN. "We're probably going to overreact. But it's understandable -- people want a level of assurance that their building is safe."

Still, Gary Slossberg, president of the National Home Building and Remodeling Corporation, a construction company in Boca Raton, Florida, said the collapse is "a wake-up-call on many fronts" and may lead to changes in laws or regulations about the frequency of building inspections.

The true toll of the collapse, of course, remains buried in the rubble. Authorities have confirmed at least 22 deaths, along with 126 unaccounted for.

For days the layers of impending heartbreak have rippled across social media, newspaper stories and television reports. The fundraising website GoFundMe has multiple campaigns aimed at assisting those touched by the tragedy: a mother awaiting news of her husband and son, a young woman who was spending the night with friends, a newlywed couple "still missing in the rubble."

"We pray for a miracle," one post says.

"We have hope that they will be found," says another.

Nicole Ortiz was hit with the news that her sister, nephew and brother-in-law all died in the collapse.

"There's no words to describe the pain of a loved one or the agony of waiting if they're alive or not," she told CNN. "Every hour, every day is different. I scream, I have almost fainted, I've cried."

'Be the first to get the best of the last'

Situated on a strip of peninsula wedged between the Biscayne Bay and Atlantic Ocean, the affluent hamlet of Surfside -- population 5,600 -- butts up against its better-known neighbor to the south, the city of Miami Beach. With 136 units, Champlain Towers South was a reflection of Greater Miami's diversity: a mix of Orthodox Jews, snowbirds, foreign nationals from across Latin America, young families and retirees.

Champlain Towers South -- and a sister structure, Champlain Towers North -- were completed in 1981 by a consortium of developers that included two men from Canada; one of them, Nathan Reiber, was wanted back home for tax evasion, according to the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario. He pleaded guilty in 1996 -- 15 years after the charge -- and would ultimately become a prominent philanthropist in Miami. Reiber died in 2014, at age 86.

When it first went up, the building was billed as a?luxury development?with wraparound balconies, breathtaking ocean views, a heated pool and valet parking.? "Be the first to get the best of the last," touted a newspaper ad pitching units in the Miami Herald in 1980.

In recent years selling prices in the building have remained high. A week before the disaster, a three-bedroom condo there sold for $710,000, according to realty company Redfin. The price of most condos ranged from $295,000 (for a one-bedroom in March 2020) to $980,000 (for a three-bedroom a year later), real estate records indicate.

By 2018, when the tower's stakeholders were preparing for its 40-year recertification -- a stringent building review process enacted after the 1974 collapse of a rooftop parking lot into a building that killed seven in Miami -- structural problems were coming to light.

Morabito Consultants, the engineering firm hired to conduct the review, noted "abundant cracking and spalling" in concrete columns, beams and walls, "exposed, deteriorating rebar" and failing waterproofing beneath the pool deck and entrance that was causing "major structural damage."

Also, a photo taken that year by a mechanical engineering firm shows a crack around the edge of a beam running along the top of the room. Engineers and experts consulted by CNN said it appears the same crack is visible in a photograph of the pool equipment room taken just days before the collapse -- only the latter photo, first published by the Miami Herald, shows the crack in much worse condition.

The October 2018 report, put together by engineer Frank Morabito, did not indicate that the structure was at risk of collapse. But he provided the condo association with an initial cost estimate of $9 million for "extensive and necessary repairs," including "significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the resident and the public," the company said in a recent statement.

But, at the time, residents were essentially told not to worry.

Mounting repairs and sticker shock: 'This is where we are now'

About a month after the report was released by Morabito, a condo association member, Mara Chouela, forwarded a copy of it to Surfside's building official, Rosendo Prieto. Prieto came to the board's regular meeting a couple days later and shared his professional opinion, saying the building appears to be "in very good shape," according to minutes of the meeting.

The next year, 2019, seems to have been marked by strife. First, in the early part of the year, construction of a neighboring ultra-luxury high rise that would dwarf Champlain Towers prompted a series of complaints from residents about noise, debris and shaking.

Once again, Chouela took action, firing off another email to Prieto in January.

"We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close," she wrote, attaching photos of construction equipment directly across from her building's property wall. Workers were "digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building."

Prieto replied within half an hour.

"There is nothing for me to check," he wrote.

The reason: The offending development, Eighty Seven Park, was directly across the border separating the town of Surfside from the city of Miami Beach, which runs between the two buildings.

Prieto, who most recently had been doing work in the Florida city of Doral, has come under fire for his comments about Champlain Towers, and is on a leave of absence. Out of "an abundance of caution," the city is reviewing his projects in Doral, according to a statement Thursday. City spokesperson Maggie Santos on Friday said licensed experts were conducting an internal review of Prieto's work. "As of this writing we have found no discrepancies or indications of wrongdoing," she said. CNN's multiple attempts to reach Prieto have been unsuccessful.

There's no known evidence that the construction of Eighty Seven Park, which took place between 2016 and 2019, contributed to the collapse.

"We are confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse that took place in Surfside," the development group behind Eighty Seven Park said in a statement to CNN Tuesday.

Later in the year, a majority of the seven-member condo board -- including Chouela -- quit amid infighting about the necessary repairs that were detailed in the report by Morabito Consultants, according to The Washington Post, citing board minutes and other board records.

Another ominous sign emerged in the fall of 2020. Morabito Consultants, the structural engineering firm that had put out the report two years prior and was working on repairs, said in an October letter that it found "deep" concrete deterioration near the pool and couldn't perform improvements due in part to structural concerns about stability.

What's more, to address the problem, Morabito said it would need to access the inside of the pool, but the pool "was to remain in service for the duration of this work," the firm said in its letter, which was addressed to condo association president Jean Wodnicki and property manager Scott Stewart.

As a result, Morabito and a subcontractor would limit the work to loose concrete removal, stated the letter, which was obtained by CNN and first reported by USA Today.

Morabito Consultants did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the letter, but it has defended its work at the tower in previous statements. Attempts by CNN to reach Wodnicki and Stewart were unsuccessful.

Fast forward to April, when Wodnicki sent residents a sobering letter.

"The observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection," Wodnicki wrote in the April 9 letter. "The concrete deterioration is accelerating. The roof situation got much worse, so extensive roof repairs had to be incorporated."

The letter also had another piece of bad news: The costs of the repairs outlined in the 2018 report had swelled from $9 million to $15 million. The board approved a $15 million special assessment to cover the repairs. For each owner, it translated into a cost of at least $80,000. Monthly payments were set to begin July 1.

"A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by," Wodnicki's letter said. "But this is where we are now."

Isabel Aguero, who owns an 11th-floor condo with her husband in the part of the building that remains standing, was one of the residents who opted for a monthly payment to help ease the sticker shock of the repair costs. On June 23, she filed the paperwork to make that happen, she told CNN.

Early the next morning, around 1:20 a.m., two-thirds of the building collapsed.

Clues emerge in the building's lower reaches

Although the forensic investigation is expected to take months, engineers suspect the source of the problem was at the base of the building, perhaps near the pool deck, where substandard waterproofing had been flagged in the 2018 Morabito report.

Vacationers at a building next door to Champlain Towers South shot video of the doomed building minutes before it collapsed. The footage, provided to CNN, shows debris and water gushing into the underground garage, an area that the report said needed repairs.

Several engineers told CNN it's possible a multitude of factors coincided to bring about the initial breaking point, which appeared to set off a compounding sequence of structural failures, causing the floors to drop, or "pancake," on top of each other.

"Unless it's a plane or a bomb that you know triggered this whole thing, sometimes you can't get it down to one cause," Allyn Kilsheimer, the structural engineer hired by the town of Surfside to identify the cause of the collapse, told CNN. "Sometimes ... we don't have enough information to decide between X, Y and Z, so it's some combination of X, Y and Z," he said. "But you don't know what you're going to end up with until you finish the whole study."

Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based contractor and attorney who focuses on construction design, said the focus of any investigation should be on the columns, beams and slab at the foundation of the building.

"Did the building fail structurally? Yes. What makes up the structure? Concrete and steel," he said. "Did that fail? Yes. Why did it fail? It was compromised. What portions were compromised? In the pictures (in the 2018 report), we definitely see a column that's structurally compromised."

Others noted that the building's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, with its corrosive seawater, increases the chances for spalling, wherein reinforced steel within the concrete begins to rust.

"I've seen up and down the coast hundreds of buildings where you have concrete problems," said Greg Batista, a specialist in concrete repair projects. "If not maintained, whether it's a concrete problem or a settling problem -- it could be a bridge, it could be a building, it could be a dam or a sea wall -- these kind of things happen if not tended to."

One study last year showed that Champlain Towers South was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year from 1993 to 1999. The professor who conducted the study, Shimon Wdowinski of Florida International University's Institute of Environment, told CNN that Champlain Towers South was the only building in the immediate area that was sinking.

However, other buildings set on wetlands in nearby Miami Beach were sinking at a faster rate, "so we didn't think it was something unusual," he said. Wdowinski said that while sinking alone would likely not cause the condo's collapse, it could have been a contributing factor.

Wave of lawsuits demands accountability

The tragedy has already triggered at least five lawsuits.

Earlier this week, the family of resident Harold Rosenberg, who remains unaccounted for, sued the condo association and named Morabito Consultants as a defendant. The lawsuit blamed the company for failing to conduct a more thorough review in 2018 and for not certifying the building as safe "for continued occupancy." The lawsuit accused the company of "an apparent attempt to wash away its failures" by filing some paperwork only after the building collapsed.

The company defended its actions in a statement to CNN, which read, in part: "Morabito Consulting did their job, just as they have done for nearly four decades -- providing expert structural engineering counsel and services. And they will continue to work with the investigating authorities to understand why this structure failed, so that such a catastrophic event can never happen again."

Three other lawsuits have targeted the condo association.

In a statement on Friday, the condo association said the causes of the collapse will take time to understand. The association also said that its surviving board members support an independent receiver being appointed to oversee the legal and claims process.

"We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy," it said.

One of the suits against the association was filed by Steven Rosenthal, who, according to court documents, owned a unit in the building and was standing next to the tower when it collapsed. Rosenthal breathed in dust "that did who knows what to the immune system," his attorney, Bob McKee, told CNN.

A class-action suit against the association was filed on behalf of Raysa Rodriguez, the woman who awoke disoriented after the collapse and ran to the ninth-floor hallway to find the building in ruins.

In the court filing, Rodriguez -- who, according to the document, was nearly finished paying her mortgage -- described the harrowing scene in vivid detail.

"I knocked on several neighbors' doors, no answer," she said. "I run to the exit, open the doors that lead to the outside stairwell and saw the devastation. The beachside of Champlain had collapsed, pancaked. I screamed in horror."

Rodriguez said a woman's voice cried out from the rubble.

"She said, 'Please help me! Please help me! Don't leave me here!'" Rodriguez said. "I couldn't see her. There were no lights. I was still in my pajamas. I ran inside and got dressed."

Rodriguez gingerly made her way down the stairs with three neighbors: a mother and her 10-year-old son, who held a puppy; and an 80-year-old woman who used a walker.

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