Wednesday, December 1 2021

August 24 marks two months since a beachfront condominium collapsed in the middle of the night, killing nearly 100 people. The work to recover the victims is complete, investigations are underway and loved ones must mourn the dead and try to make sense of the tragedy.

When we arrived at the scene of the crumbling condominium in Surfside, Florida, about 20 hours after the collapse, we were greeted by heavy downpours of sporadic thunderstorms. As members of the media and neighbors gathered a block away, rescuers carried out a desperate search for survivors. We could see a number of emergency personnel from a distance cautiously climbing up and down piles of debris.

The neighbors stood quietly, gazing at the damaged building. One of them told me that an Argentinian friend had a unit in the condo and had lost everything. Heavy equipment and new crews arrived overnight and through the second day. The smell of smoke from the smoldering ruins enveloped the area from the early hours. Rescuers were forced to stop their hunt for survivors as they fought to put out the blaze.

A view of the collapse one block away (Maki Hatae)

The South Champlain Towers, located a few miles north of famous Miami Beach, partially collapsed around 1:20 a.m. on June 24, killing at least 98 people. A security camera in an adjacent building captured the moment. It showed part of the 12-story building falling in seconds and a plume of dust rising. Fifty-five of the building’s 136 units were lost. At dawn, a clearer picture of destruction emerged; one side of the complex was completely leveled and only a concrete mound of rubble remained.

The story of a survivor

One of the survivors, Raysa Rodriguez, lived in accommodation on the ninth floor of the condominium. It was her dream to retire near the beach, and she was almost done with her mortgage payments. When the building collapsed, she was sleeping.

“Something woke me up and I found myself in the middle of the room,” she recalls in a statement. “The building swayed like a sheet of paper. I don’t know if I jumped out of bed or how I got there. I ran across my apartment to the hallway. I looked left towards the north end of the building. A concrete column had pierced the hallway from floor to ceiling. I looked at the elevators. The elevator shafts were exposed, the doors were gone.

She eventually came down the stairs with a few neighbors and escaped through a second-story balcony.

Along with others, Rodrigues filed a class action lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, which oversaw the building. Their complaint, and others filed by residents and families of the victims, are consolidated into a single class action lawsuit, according to the Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Authorities have also launched a grand jury investigation into the collapse.

A survivor and her neighbors who perished in the collapse
Raysa Rodriguez (center) with neighbors Richard Augustine and Elaine Sabino, who were killed in the collapse.

United families and a torn community

Adriana Lafont lost her ex-husband, Manny, who was living in a unit on the eighth floor when the building collapsed.

“This day started with a phone call at 3 am from my sister-in-law,” Adriana recalls.

The sister-in-law, who lives in Canada, saw the news and contacted Adriana to ask her where they were. She and Manny’s two children, Santi, 10, and Mia, 13, live with Adriana, but they have visited their father every week at the condo since their parents’ divorce.

“She just asked me very [scared], ‘Where are the children?’ So I turned my head and saw Santi next to me. I knew Mia was in her room. It’s a miracle. I have my two children with me. “

Manny has owned the condo for over two decades. During their marriage, Adriana lived there for 11 years.

“Neighbors, our friends, so many people lost their lives. People we saw every day, ”she says. “The same people lived there for many years. Manny had been there for 22 years. So he knew everyone, I knew everyone in 11 years. I lost a lot of people too, good guys. friends. I feel this void in my life, in my feelings, in my heart. It’s almost physical. Of course, I miss Manny. “

Lafont family
Adriana and Manny Lafont with their children, Mia and Santi. Manny died in the collapse.
Adriana Lafont remembers the night of the drama.

Rescue turns into recovery

Rescuers searched for survivors day and night for two weeks. They searched for pockets in the debris where someone could be trapped alive. Fires and torrential rains hampered the operation. The part of the building that was still standing was also a risk. Threatened by the approach of a tropical storm, the authorities made the decision to bring down the remains of the structure in a controlled demolition. He was shaved on July 4.

On July 7, authorities made the difficult decision to abandon the search for survivors and move on to a recovery operation.

“At this point, we’ve really exhausted all the options available to us in the search and rescue mission,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

Rescuers at the site of the collapse
Rescue workers pay tribute to the victims of the collapse as the search for survivors is canceled on July 7.

A little wonder

A small miracle happened two days later. A cat named Binx, who lived with a family in a unit on the ninth floor, was found by a neighbor wandering near the construction site.

“I’m a little relieved and shocked, honestly,” said cat owner Taylor Gonzales in a video posted by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. “It’s just, again, a really long trip over the past two weeks, so I’m happy.”

Cat that survived collapse reunited with owners
Binx, a cat who survived the collapse, reunites with his owner Taylor Gonzales.

In search of answers

With recovery operations in their final stages, authorities are focusing on finding answers. The collapse was so catastrophic that a federal investigation was launched by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The group has a long history of investigating building failures and other disasters, including the attack on the Pentagon and the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

NIST investigators, structural engineers and forensic scientists are digging through the rubble for clues. Authorities say more than 26 million pounds of debris has been removed and more than 200 pieces of evidence collected.

The site is cleared of debris
Evidence is identified, removed from the debris pile and transported to a storage facility

Expert predicts lengthy investigation

“My first reaction was ‘How unusual’, because it’s not a common thing that happens, buildings don’t just fall,” says Hanif Kara, structural engineer and professor at the Graduate School of Design. from Harvard University. “When you see something like that, you have to assume that there was a series of multiple issues that all got worse on that terrible night.”

Kara says the security camera video gives clues as to what may have happened.

“In the United States, they call it a ‘pancake collapse.’ We call it a disproportionate collapse or a gradual collapse,” Kara said. “A local failure is the cause. Something small breaks, then it gets worse by shifting the force to the next part. And then the next part; this gradually worsens the problem. And then you get a gradual full-scale collapse. “

Based on her experience examining building materials, Kara warns of the danger that natural elements, such as salt and water, pose to the aging of concrete structures. It also stresses the importance of close surveillance and inspections.

“What we are currently doing in buildings, because of the power of calculations and computers, is to install sensors that can allow us to perform examinations remotely,” he says. “You don’t have to wait 40 years; we watch them as we build them. We watch them as they are in use. We watch them as a new wind blows. These things have become possible through technology. They are now economical.

After studying similar building collapses, Kara predicts that a full investigation will take years. He expects it to result in a review of regulations and a change in building codes.

Prof Hanif Kara
Hanif Kara, Professor of Architectural Technology Practice, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

At the end of the recovery, the pain and questions remain

Most of the debris on the site has now been cleaned up. And, just over a month after the collapse, authorities said they had identified the last of the missing victims.

“It really means the world can close for anyone who was looking for their loved ones,” said Mayor Levine Cava. “The buildings must not collapse. So this is obviously something quite unacceptable and we will do everything in our power to make sure that does not happen.”

A Florida judge awarded at least $ 150 million in initial compensation to the victims and families of those lost in the collapse. This includes $ 50 million in building insurance and $ 100 million in proceeds from the sale of the property where the condo once stood.

Although the salvage operation has been completed and the dust on the ground has settled, the pain experienced by those who have lost loved ones remains. How and why could this catastrophe have happened today? This question, too, will remain for months and years to come.


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