SURFSIDE, Fla. — One year later, the site where the Champlain Tower South once stood remains a vacant reminder of tragedy, failure and devastating loss.
One year later, the now hollowed surface also remains empty of answers to the how and why the seaside building of condos crumbled into a mangled mess of steel, concrete and memories.
Allyn Kilsheimer is a world-renowned structural engineer and was hired by the town of Surfside to independently investigate what caused the 40-year-old condo to come down.
To date, he has no answers.
“We don’t have a factual determination of why it happened at this point in time,” he said during an interview recently in Surfside. “It’s certainly one of the most frustrating from a complexity standpoint.”
Kilsheimer had originally planned to have answers by the year anniversary of the building’s collapse but, he said, family litigation, ongoing death investigations by police and the feds leading the investigation have contributed to his team’s delay in getting access to materials and structural debris.
But, he said, in 12 months, he hasn’t ruled out much about what may have contributed to the building’s sudden and shocking demise.
“I think I pretty much eliminated some of the ideas that people were saying about when the Navy was blowing up ships in the ocean that caused it, things like that that were kind of way out of left field,” he said.
The same goes for investigators from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).
“Right now we have about two dozen hypotheses about what may have happened,” explained Glenn Bell, who is co-leading the fed’s investigation.
“I’ve been doing this type of work for over 40 years and this may be the most complex, challenging investigation ever undertaken of its type,” Bell said.
To date, teams have cataloged and analyzed materials, measurements have been taken and 3D imaging has been created and will be used for future scrutiny.
Invasive testing will come next and will allow investigators to cut into concrete and steel for clues.
Interviews with witnesses and first responders and anyone else who may have seen, heard or known something continues and is welcomed by the feds.
It is widely known the 136- unit condominium had problems. Shortly after the collapse, surviving residents shared stories of the building’s increasing signs of destruction and disrepair, which they claimed, were repeatedly ignored. Residents pointed to disagreements among the tower’s homeowners association and residents who didn’t want to pay excessive assessment fees as some of the reasons the building had long-standing issues.
Some of the damage, which included cracks in the tower’s garage and under the pool deck, was also documented in 2018 and described as “major structural damage” by an engineering firm as part of the building’s 40- year recertification. Work for the recertification was just getting started at the time the tower crumbled.
Since its collapse, Florida lawmakers passed a bill to increase the frequency of those inspections. NIST will also be weighing in with a series of new recommendations based on its findings.
However one year later, what caused its crash and the deaths of 98 men, women and children will likely be summed up by a number of factors that took time to build and will take more time for investigators to unravel.
“Everyone wants answers to these questions, for good reason,” said Bell. “It's challenging for us because we have to do a thorough investigation and that's going to take some time,” he said. Bell expects the federal investigation won’t be complete until the fall of 2023, with recommendations released a year later.
Allyn Kilsheimer hopes he’ll have answers from his independent investigation sooner.
“I made a promise to the people of Surfside that I would figure out what happened so I can tell people if you see this kind of a thing in your building, you need to get somebody else to look at it pretty quickly,” he said.