The death toll in last week’s condominium-building collapse in Surfside, Fla., rose to 12, officials said Tuesday evening, with 149 people still unaccounted for, as President Biden planned to visit the site and a prosecutor said she will ask a grand jury to examine the disaster.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Tuesday she would ask the grand jury to determine “what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations.”
Grand juries in Florida are able to examine criminal matters and explore issues of public policy, returning indictments as well as reports aimed at recommending changes to lawmakers.
Here are some significant developments
A Washington Post examination of video and images, as well as interviews with structural engineers, a key witness and an investigator, deepens questions about the potential role of damage to a deck in the pool area.
In the early hours of Sept. 19, 1985, a roar woke millions of residents in the vast urban sprawl of Mexico City as a magnitude-8.1 earthquake rattled the city, toppling hundreds of buildings and trapping thousands of people under piles of rubble.
To help deal with the widespread devastation, a group of volunteers rushed to the collapsed houses and buildings across the city, and particularly to a working-class neighborhood to help overwhelmed authorities search for and rescue victims.
Los Topos, Spanish for “the moles,” was born then as a group of volunteers who offer rescue efforts and emergency relief wherever help is needed. The group has since been involved in virtually every major natural disaster in Mexico and many others around the world, and it has splintered into several different groups over the years.
Unnerved by the name on caller ID, Arnie and Myriam Notkin’s granddaughter answered the ringing phone Thursday night. Only static came through the other end.
The family largely wrote off the strange call. The Notkins’ landline had sat next to their bed in apartment 302 of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Seeing the devastation, it was hard to believe the couple could have survived the crash, said their grandson, Jake Samuelson.
A Washington Post examination of video and images from the deadly collapse of a high-rise apartment building outside Miami — along with interviews with structural engineers, a key witness and an investigator — deepens questions about whether existing damage to a deck in the pool area contributed to the disaster.
A resident told The Post that minutes before Champlain Towers South in Surfside came down, she noticed that a section of the pool deck and a street-level parking area had collapsed into the parking garage below. The husband of another resident has said that his wife, who has not been seen since the disaster, made a similar observation in a telephone call shortly before the collapse.
An engineer in 2018 found “major structural damage” in the pool deck area caused by what he said was a flaw that limited water drainage. At least 12 people were killed and 149 remain unaccounted for following a type of disaster that is unheard of in the United States.
After searching a precarious pile of rubble for nearly six straight days, rescue workers have recovered and confirmed the 12th victim in last week’s Surfside condo collapse.
The response team, which has been working constantly in shifts, has not pulled someone from the debris alive since the hours immediately after the disaster, but officials say the search will continue, with 149 people still missing.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced the updated death toll at a Tuesday evening news briefing, and she cautioned that “these numbers are very fluid and they continue to change.”
She commended the first responders, who have pressed on despite stormy weather.
With an eye on a foreboding forecast, the effort’s coordinators are asking the federal government for an additional search-and-rescue team that can provide relief for the workers currently on-site in case a storm strikes some part of the state.
“We want to rotate those out so that we can get some resources back in case, in seven to 10 days or so, we may be dealing with some type of tropical cyclone,” said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky called the situation “extremely difficult” but said his team is “out here 110 percent.”
“We’re here to do a job, we’re here with a passion,” he said. “This is what we do, and hopefully we have some success.”
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Venezuelan diplomat on condo collapse: ‘This tragedy isn’t foreign. It is our own.’
Two days after authorities identified a Venezuelan couple as two of the 11 people who died after the Champlain Towers collapse, Venezuelan diplomats visited Surfside, Fla., to express their solidarity.
In a news conference Tuesday morning at the Surfside emergency command center, Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, said he had visited the site of the collapse and witnessed the “continuous, permanent and dedicated” rescue efforts.
Vecchio was appointed by interim president Juan Guaidó, whose mandate is recognized by the U.S. government.
— Centro de Comunicación Nacional (@Presidencia_VE) June 29, 2021
He posted a snippet of the hope-filled message he addressed to families affected by the tragedy on Twitter.
“A superhuman effort is being done to try to rescue the greatest number of people,” Vecchio said in Spanish. “So let’s keep that strength and faith. I know it’s hard to maintain it in these complex times, but all the authorities, people, firefighters and police officers are undertaking a great effort.”
The ambassador said Venezuela “feels the tragedy as our own” given that Florida — and particularly Miami — houses the largest number of the South American country’s citizens in the United States.
“This tragedy isn’t foreign,” he said. “It is our own.”
Brian Fincheltub, the Venezuelan Embassy’s director of consular affairs, confirmed that six Venezuelans were missing after the South Florida condo collapsed. Two of them, Leon Oliwkowicz and his wife, Cristina Beatriz de Oliwkowicz, were found dead.
Para el momento manejamos información de 6 venezolanos no localizados en el colapso del edificio en Surfside. Si tiene información de algún venezolano que pudo haber sido afectado, comuníquese al 305-614-1819 o al correo email@example.com
Other Venezuelans who remain unaccounted for include Moisés Rodán, Andrés Levine, Luis Sadovnik and Nicole Langesfeld.
Shirley Varnagy, a Venezuelan journalist and close friend of the Oliwkowicz family, said the parents of Rodán, Levine and Sadovnik were able to travel to the United States from Venezuela, according to the Associated Press.
“Some did not have a visa, others had an expired passport, but with diplomatic collaboration they were able to arrive,” Varnagy told the AP.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter that emergency visas were being approved for “people from over a dozen countries who have close relatives among the missing in Surfside,” and that some had already arrived.
The State Department said it could not discuss individual visa cases, as such records are confidential. However, Vecchio thanked the federal agency, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Rubio, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) for their help in coordinating efforts to allow the victims’ families to travel to the United States.
For now, the faces of the four missing Venezuelans smile across a poster that was posted at a memorial site erected by the Surfside community.
A new memorial for those missing in Surfside condo collapse overlooks the Champlain Towers South from parking lot near St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. A Puerto Rican flag hangs on the fence, a flyer draws attention to “Venezolanos desaparecidos” and a sign says “No Estan Solos” pic.twitter.com/7s5MGfzUCq
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Tuesday she planned to ask a grand jury to look at the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., and determine “what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations.”
Grand juries in Florida are able to look at criminal matters and explore issues of public policy, returning indictments as well as reports aimed at recommending changes to lawmakers.
In a statement Tuesday, Fernandez Rundle said she had spoken to members of a six-person team dispatched by the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology, and noted that any investigation from their end would take considerable time. If that group launches an investigation, its work typically takes more than two years to conclude.
“I will not do anything to jeopardize their investigative findings, which will hopefully prevent future tragedies like this from happening,” she said. “However, this is a matter of extreme public importance, and as the state attorney elected to keep this community safe, I will not wait.”
Noting that Miami-Dade grand juries had previously issued reports and recommendations on topics including building codes and environmental integrity, Fernandez Rundle said she would ask a grand jury to look at ways to keep residents safe without imperiling other investigations.
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Engineering expert to probe safety of condo’s still-standing portion as he begins on-site inspection
The veteran engineer hired by the town of Surfside to investigate the building collapse began his on-site inspection Tuesday with a special focus on whether the condo’s still-standing portion is at risk of falling down.
Allyn Kilsheimer, president of KCE Structural Engineers, said in an interview that he will get a closer look at the part of the structure that did not collapse and try to determine whether wind of a certain speed could bring it down — hampering search efforts and endangering the lives of recovery workers.
“My guys can do the computer modeling and say, ‘If we get winds more than X, we have a problem,’ ” said Kilsheimer, whose team began its work remotely. “Then I can tell these guys, ‘Hey if the wind gets to a certain number, get off of there.’ ”
Former Miami-Dade Fire Rescue chief David Downey said officials were monitoring the still-standing portion of the building with surveying devices to detect any movements in the structure.
“Right now, there is more of a likelihood of debris falling from the upper floors,” he said. “So we’re working to secure what we can.”
With the Atlantic hurricane season underway,officials are concerned about what might happen if a powerful squall blows through the area and hits the site — a more pressing issue than the inquiry into how exactly the building came down.
“I can’t stop it from falling,” Kilsheimer said. “What I can do is try and make sure I know when to warn them about the remaining building and how they should get off of the pile.”
He will also attempt to analyze whether part of the debris pile is propping up the rest of the building and preventing its collapse.
Seeing the site up close is crucial, Kilsheimer said, because it will allow him a firsthand look at some of what has surfaced in media reports. Kilsheimer said it was difficult to know what to make of photos published by the Miami Herald on Monday, which claimed to show cracking concrete and corroded rebar beneath the pool 36 hours before the collapse.
“It’s dramatic,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean anything by itself.”
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Condo finances were strained ahead of construction project ‘the building needs so badly,’ documents show
The board president of Champlain Towers South told residents in May 2020 that several “budget surprises” — including coronavirus rules and an unexpected jump in insurance premiums — had strained finances as they prepared for this year’s 40-year inspection and certification, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
“There is no way for our current budget to absorb all these hits,” Jean Wodnicki wrote in a May 29, 2020, letter to property owners before going on to describe “the work our building needs so badly.” That included hallway renovations and 40-year renovations, which Wodnicki said would be combined into one project to “schedule work most cost-effectively and efficiently.”
Wodnicki said a proposed “special assessment” for coronavirus expenses, deficits and 40-year expenses — estimated at $479,608 — would be paid for with funds reallocated from a special assessment several years earlier. More than $353,000 of those costs were listed as engineering expenses.
An earlier email from the condominium association to Champlain Towers South residents in March 2020 addressed the hiring of a “40 Year” engineer and expressed confidence that “we can get this project started before the end of the year.”
But documents show that the project was still in “the beginning budget phase” as a 2021 board election approached. Candidates emphasized the importance of the upcoming construction work in pitches to residents ahead of a Feb. 16 annual meeting of the condominium association, according to documents also obtained by The Post.
“I realize that our building is about to embark on a major construction project,” wrote Max Friedman, who said he previously served as board president and highlighted his engineering experience. He added that while at Champlain Towers South, he had managed improvements including new elevators, roof repairs, pool repairs and installation of a smoke-alarm system.
This would be a “multiyear effort,” he noted.
Mara Chouela, who was also seeking reelection, said she would like to see Champlain Towers South become “a modern version of what it used to be.”
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Former Surfside official who said building was ‘in very good shape’ is on leave from current job
The former Surfside building official who told residents their condominium building was “in very good shape” nearly three years before it collapsed has been put on leave from his current government position in nearby Doral, the city disclosed Tuesday.
Ross Prieto was Surfside’s building official in 2018, when an engineer warned in a report that there was “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below the pool deck, in the part of the building that would fall last week. A month later, Prieto told the condo association that the building was “in very good shape,” according to the meeting’s minutes.
Prieto, now employed by the contractor C.A.P. Government, was working as Doral’s temporary building official until Monday, when the company informed the city that Prieto “was on a leave of absence.”
C.A.P. Government “assigned another employee to assist the City of Doral Building Department on a temporary basis,” the city said in a statement, declining to comment further.
The contractor did not immediately respond to a request for comment or questions about whether Prieto’s absence was related to his tenure in Surfside.
Prieto’s comments in 2018 and in subsequent emails have come under scrutiny in recent days, with officials and the public pushing to find out whether any dire warning signs were ignored before the disaster.
In 2019, a resident emailed the town to complain that the construction of a neighboring building was too close to Champlain Towers South.
“There is nothing for me to check,” Prieto replied. “The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas as they are the closest to the construction.”
Donna DiMaggio Berger, whose law firm represents the condo association, told The Post over the weekend that it is “not looking to point fingers.”
“Right now our focus remains solely on finding the survivors of the tragedy,” she said. “There will be a more appropriate time to unravel what happened and why later.”
Miami mayor says collapse has consequences for condo buildings and real estate
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building could impact policy and real estate.
“This is not just about [those] who are unaccounted,” he said in a Tuesday webinar about condo-building safety with the Miami-based firm Haber Law. “This has broad implications about the safety of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who live in buildings and high-rises. This has implications for real estate in terms of the value of people feeling confident and safe.”
It is not yet clear what caused the partial collapse of the building, but neighbors in other high-rise structures who attended the webinar now have questions about their homes and safety.
Suarez compared condo associations to cities, where if maintenance is delayed too long, people could get hurt.
Hiscommentscame after attorneys in the meeting explained that condo associations can vote on budgets that remove reserves essential for repairs once ownership passes from building developers to unit owners, leaving buildings in the hole as structural problems arise.
The budget and reserve fund for Champlain Towers South has not been publicly shared, but the building did require more than $9 million in major repairs before part of it crumbled, the Associated Press reported.
David Podein and Christopher Utrera, partners at Haber Law, provided advice about the value of finding quality building inspectors and documenting building damage, without speculating about the cause of the collapse at Champlain Towers South.
“A tragedy like this brings forth a very stark reminder that our buildings are built to last but they need to be taken care of just like everything else in life,” Suarez said.
Survivor describes escape from collapse: ‘I kept going, screaming ... I want to live’
SURFSIDE, Fla. — Maria Iliana Monteagudo is a relative newcomer to Surfside. She used all the money she had after her divorce — $600,000 in cash — to buy her unit, No. 611, in December.
She was enchanted by the ocean views and the friendly neighbors. “I liked the apartment, nice view, nice building,” Monteagudo said in an interview. “Nobody told me anything bad about it. I bought the apartment blind. Everybody omitted the reality.”
She was asleep Thursday morning when a strange feeling woke her. “It’s like something supernatural woke me up. I felt something strange, and I thought, 'Oh, I forgot to close the sliding door to the balcony, and the wind is making the noise,’ ” she said. “I tried to close the sliding door, and it felt like the building was moving. The door wouldn’t close.”
Then Monteagudo heard a crack. There was a line in the wall coming down from the ceiling — about two fingers wide. “Then it started getting wider and wider as I watched,” she said. “Something said, you have to run. You have to run immediately.”
“I ran to my bedroom, and took off my robe and changed into any dress and any sandals. I ran to the dining room table, I got my purse and my credit cards. I took the key, I blew out the candle that I light every night for Guadalupe of Mexico,” she said. “I blew out the candle, just in case.”
SURFSIDE, Fla. — The president of the Champlain Towers South condo building warned residents earlier this year that damage to the structure’s concrete support system was “accelerating” and “would begin to multiply exponentially” in the coming years without millions of dollars in repairs to the 40-year-old building that collapsed last week in Surfside, Fla.
The concern, raised in a letter written by association President Jean Wodnicki, was part of a broader explanation for why residents were being asked to fund more than $15 million in repairs to the building.
“When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface,” Wodnicki wrote. “Please note that the original scope of work in the 2018 report has expanded. The concrete deterioration is accelerating.”
Although investigators have not determined what caused the condo building to collapse early Thursday, leaving 11 people confirmed dead and about 150 others missing, Wodnicki told residents that the concrete work was part of a broader series of repairs that were urgently needed.
In all, Wodnicki told residents of the 135-unit complex that $16.2 million in repairs were needed, and the association had about $707,000 on hand. Wodnicki said the board was asking residents to fund the remaining $15.5 million in costs with a special assessment.
The first responder called out, looking for survivors, and he was shocked to hear a response. A woman had been trapped for days in the rubble of a hotel in Haiti that had rumbled to the ground in an earthquake that killed about 250,000 people.
Jeff Lewis, a battalion fire chief with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Virginia, said he recalls that day in 2010 often. The woman was eventually extricated from the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, a victory in a line of work that mixes devastation with jubilation.
“It’s a very sobering thing,” Lewis said of finding survivors. “All of us who are in this field consider ourselves lucky and very much appreciate that we can do it.”
The highly specialized field jumped to the forefront after the collapse last week of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, Fla. As of mid-Tuesday, authorities had confirmed 11 deaths, with 150 people unaccounted for and others grappling with the small decisions that kept them away from their home as it disintegrated.
The wicked challenges in the work are often in its unpredictability.
Gov. Ron DeSantis likened the continued search for collapse survivors to “when somebody is missing in action in the military.”
“You are missing until you are found. We don’t stop the search,” DeSantis (R) said at a Tuesday news conference. “That’s what’s happening. Those first responders are breaking their backs, trying to find anybody they can, and they’re going to continue to do that.”
At the midday briefing, Levine Cava said no new fatalities had been confirmed since officials’ Monday night news conference.
Levine Cava said authorities have been able to notify families of the 11 people who have died.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he had attended a recent family briefing in which authorities faced frustration, anger and questions about progress in the operation.
He said families of the missing also asked questions about how long people can survive under the debris.
“There didn’t seem to be a good answer to that,” Burkett said.
But he said he described to families some of the reports he had read about people being found alive in the ruins of other collapses around the world.
“I think as the governor said earlier, nobody is giving up hope here,” Burkett said. “Nobody is stopping. The work goes on, full force. We’re dedicated to getting everyone out of that pile of rubble and reuniting them with their families.”