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'Major structural damage' raises questions about Surfside condo’s stability before collapse

A 2018 field survey report flagged issues with waterproofing under pool
Building Collapse Miami
Posted at 4:45 PM, Jun 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-27 10:30:23-04

The search for why?

By day two in the search for survivors of the condominium collapse in Surfside, the air was filled with thick smoke and so many questions.

The how, the why, obvious questions with no obvious answers. While search and rescue efforts continued at the site of the 40-year-old, 12-story building, the man who wrote the book on many of Florida’s building codes and inspections found himself still trying to grasp the reality of how such a large portion of a building could just crumble to the ground.

“It shouldn’t have happened”

“This collapse is something so unusual, it takes the cake. It shouldn’t have happened,” said John Pistorino. He’s among the most recognized structural engineers in the state. Pistrino’s name is behind some of the most recognizable high rises in South Florida and he’s consulted in a number of devastating structural collapses around the county.

He was also among the engineer masterminds who helped discover what caused the 2018 pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University. The bridge was still being built when at 175 foot-long section of it collapsed on the heavily-traveled Tamiami Trail. The collapse killed six people and crushed eight vehicles traveling underneath it. The cause of that collapse was calculation errors.

Pistorino told us he was recently asked to help consult over what brought the South Tower of Champlain Towers in Surfside with an unknown number of residents inside. By Saturday morning, rescue efforts were continuing but being hampered by the fire beneath the rubble and thick smoke according to Miami Dade County’s Mayor. 159 people remain unaccounted for and officials have confirmed 4 deaths.

What caused the tower to collapse will likely take months to fully understand. Pistorino isn’t speculating but questions have surfaced about climate change and building above rising seas.

A 2020 land study by FIU Professor Shimon Wdowinsk found between 1993-1999, the building had subsided half an inch. Though, movement like that is not unusual and an FIU spokesperson clarified the land study found other areas of the world had subsided at more accelerated rates.

Records reveal condo had “major structural damage” identified in 2018

Building records released by the Town of Surfside Friday night also reveal “major structural damage” discovered in 2018 by Morabito Consulting, a Maryland-based engineering group hired to do the building’s mandatory 40-year building certification. According to the structural field survey report, “waterproofing below the pool deck & entrance drive as well as all of the planter waterproofing is beyond its useful life and must all be completely removed and replaced,” records show. It also said the “failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas” and if not repaired in the near future, “will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”

It is unclear if any of those repairs had been made. Morabito’s President and Founder, Frank Morabito, would not comment, texting Reporter Katie LaGrone on Friday, “I am sorry but we cannot comment at this time as our investigation is ongoing.”

Pistorino’s firm bid on condo’s certification job

Pistorino is also credited for creating Florida’s mandatory 40-year certification on buildings. On Friday, he revealed to Katie Lagrone that his firm was approached by the Champlain Tower’s HOA in 2019 to take on the certification work but they were rejected. “They basically said we were too expensive and so we didn’t go forward with it,” Pistorino said.

An attorney for the HOA said Morabito Consulting was still in the “early stages” of certifying the building but what that means remains unclear.

As for the forensic investigation into its collapse, Pistrino believes the structure’s center will likely be a major focus.

“That main center section. That’s the most culprit section because it looks like that brought down the rest of it,” he said referencing surveillance video from a neighboring building that captured the overnight collapse of the tower.

Starting the investigation will take time since rescue efforts are ongoing and there’s so much rubble that needs to be cleared before engineers can get inside, analyze the tower’s foundation and the earth beneath it.

“This is so unusual, it’s just a mystery,” Pistrino said.