SURFSIDE, Fla. — A visit today to the former site of the Champlain Towers South condominium along Surfside’s oceanfront reveals branches of rusted metal piercing the concrete. While hoses, rain puddles, water pumps, and construction cones border what appear to be the final remaining pieces of a structure that once was.
From a distance, a fence wrapped in a tarp surrounds the site’s perimeter and the few artificial flowers that hang in the metal remind us this was the site where nearly 100 lives were lost on a summer night in 2021.
But nearly 24 months after this unimaginable tragedy, what caused this 12-story tower of homes to crumble to the ground is still unknown.
“It’s very frustrating for us, for the families, for the friends, for the unit owners, for everybody. We deserve answers,” said Pablo Langesfeld, who lost his 26-year-old daughter, Nicky, and her husband, in the overnight collapse.
“We have absolutely no idea what happened, not only as a respect to the 98 families and all the unit owners who lost everything in a matter of seconds but to respect for everyone who lives on the coast or lives in condos across the state line. How does a building collapse in the middle of the night and two years later, we still don't know why,” her brother, Martin, told us during a recent interview.
Allyn Kilsheimer is a world-renowned structural engineer who was hired by the Town of Surfside to independently investigate what caused the 40-year-old condo to come down.
When Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Kilsheimer if he was any closer to understanding the cause of the collapse, Kilsheimer responded, “We're closer than where we were a year ago. But we're not close to understanding why.”
Kilsheimer said he is 90% sure the tower’s collapse was not the result of foundational issues. Still, he blames delays in answers to a number of unexpected obstacles he and his team have faced in getting access to sample and test debris from the site.
Family lawsuits, police investigations, and an ongoing, concurrent federal investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Kilsheimer said, have resulted in access delays he’s never experienced before.
Those unanticipated delays have also resulted in increased costs to the town since it was the Town of Surfside who hired his team to independently investigate the cause of the building’s dramatic crumble.
During an update to town commissioners back in January, Kilsheimer asked and was approved for an additional $575,000 contingent on several factors, including obtaining those funds from external sources. If the money comes through, the town’s estimated total costs for Kilsheimer’s independent examination of the collapse will likely exceed $3 million dollars.
“Yes, that’s a lot of money,” said Kilsheimer when asked about the increase despite no final answers.
As for what he says to family members who have been eagerly and patiently waiting for answers, he said, “I tell them we're not going to give up. We're going to get to the bottom line of this.”
But when remains another unknown for the families who are desperate to move on but can’t.
“We know these things take time and we want the full 100% report,” said Martin Langesfeld. “We need to know the exact answer but two years and not one update is a little bit ridiculous,” he said.
Last year, investigators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology said they expected to release its federal findings by the fall of 2023. According to a spokesperson with NIST, an update on where things stand is expected in the next few weeks.