New details reveal a former town building official described Champlain Towers South in “very good shape” after engineers found “major structural damage.” Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone explains and shares why neighbors are increasingly concerned about the safety of their own building
As officials confirmed the casualties from the beachside condo collapse in Surfside reached 10 on Monday, documents are raising new questions about what town officials knew about the building’s structural issues and when.
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Documents released by the town show despite a 2018 engineering report which flagged “major structural damage” to the 136-unit building, a month later, the town’s former building official told concerned residents the building was in “very good shape,” according to board meeting minuted released by the town Monday morning.
The revelation follows a string of recently released documents by the town that paints a picture of a 40-year old oceanside condominium scarred by wear, tear, errors and failures.
In 2018, engineers inspecting the building as part of its 40-year recertification found a lack of proper waterproofing, or drainage, had caused concrete slaps near the entrance of the garage and under the pool deck to deteriorate. The report stated without a fix in the “near future” the damage could “expand exponentially.”
John Pistorino is one of Miami’s most recognized structural engineers. He created much of the county’s building codes, its 40-year certification mandate and had been asked to help investigators uncover what led to the 12-story condo with a penthouse to fall in the middle of the night.
Pistorino wouldn’t talk specifics about this building but explains how bad drainage can become a major problem.
“Waterproofing is absolutely vital. If water gets in there and underneath the waterproofing, in the structural slab and the drains don’t get rid of it, then the saltwater is going to have the opportunity to attack the steal,” Pistorino said.
When asked if it could attack to such a point that causes a building to collapse, Pistorino responded, “you know I can’t comment on that unless I know all the details.”
Pistorino told us he hasn’t read the documents recently released by the town. He said he wouldn’t until the full forensic investigation begins which will take time since rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing. He also wouldn’t speculate if “major structural damage” meant the damage should have been taken care of immediately.
However, he did say that any damage would have been communicated to town building officials who have “policing powers” and can issue fines or force residents to vacate, if necessary.
Concerns about the building’s structure weren’t new when engineers found issues. Records show residents expressed concerns about the tower’s stability due to nearby construction.
Emails show their concerns were dismissed by the same former town building official, Ross Prieto. Prieto now works for a building consultant doing work for the City of Doral. He, nor his company, responded to requests for comment.
A spokesperson from the town of Surfside also didn’t respond to questions.
Meantime, neighbors of Champlain Tower East are concerned about their own building’s stability.
Robert Lisman and Marta Castro live in Champlain Tower East, just one building down from the building that collapsed early Thursday morning. They showed Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone pictures of a crack in a column in the building’s parking garage. Lismad said the crack did not exist before the South Tower collapsed. He brought it to the town’s attention.
“Town officials confirmed there was no imminent danger,” Lisman said.
His building was built in the early 1990s and doesn’t show the wear and tear the South Tower did before it fell.
Still, he’s worried especially after learning what engineers documented that they found in the South Tower in 2018, but it didn’t seem enough for town officials to act on.
It remains unknown if any of the findings in 2018 contributed to the building’s destruction.