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'I didn't see anything alarming,' engineer who visited Surfside condo last year recounts

A partial collapse at the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside on June 24, 2021.jpg
Posted at 4:11 AM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-02 07:11:58-04

SURFSIDE, Fla. — While the focus in Surfside, Florida, remains on rescue and recovery, the press for answers into how and why the Champlain Towers South tower collapsed last Thursday is a top priority for local, state and federal experts and investigators. All will play a role in a forensic investigation into the cause of the deadly collapse.

Typical probes also involve reconstructing the building somewhere else to help determine the cause. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also reiterated her support for a grand jury probe into the tragedy.

Questions linger about whether the disaster resulted from overdue repairs and red flags that engineers may have ignored.

Aerial view of collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, June 25, 2021
Rescue personnel work at the remains of the Champlain Towers South condo June 25, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.

In newly released documents by the town of Surfside, permits reveal the tower's 13th-floor penthouse addition resulted in a town order to immediately cease construction of it in 1980 because the town attorney, at the time, determined the additional floor violated the town's code. A few days later, the council granted an exception for the additional floor to be constructed in the tower and in one of its sister towers nearby.

But most questions about the building's structural soundness have focused, thus far, on a 2018 inspection report conducted by Morabito Consulting. The condominium's homeowners association hired the firm as part of the building's mandated 40-year certification.

Morabito engineers found "major structural damage" due to drainage issues in the garage and under the pool deck. "Abundant cracking" was also noted in the report. However, nowhere in the report did the findings suggest emergency repairs.

Inspection of collapsed building pointed to problems, Champlain Towers South illustration
An earlier report of the Champlain Towers South condo uncovered cracking and spalling of concrete columns, beams and walls.

Jason Borden, a structural engineer for O&S Associates, did a walk-through of the building as recently as January 2020. He also didn't notice anything out of the ordinary for the size and age of the 136-unit tower.

"I'm 100% shocked," Borden said. "I think I may be more shocked than most people. I spent about an hour on-site and walked through with the property manager and a resident who pointed out some issues they knew about in the building that they felt needed to be addressed."

Borden explained those issues included stucco deterioration, concrete cracking on balconies and in the parking garage. He did not look at the pool.

"I didn't see anything alarming or that made me feel unsafe in the building or have to do what we've done in the past at other locations," Borden said. "If we see something, we will direct the owner to immediately place shoring or immediately brace the situation to have it resolved and made safe. I didn't see anything that necessitated that action. The fact that this came down in the manner that it did completely blows me away."

This story was originally published by Katie LaGrone on Scripps station WPTV in Palm Beach, Florida.