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Grand jury will examine Surfside condominium collapse, prosecutor says

Rescuers look for survivors in the rubble Sunday. Inquiries into the disaster include federal, local and privately led efforts, and it could be years before a definitive cause is determined. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Miami's top prosecutor pledged Tuesday to have a grand jury examine last week's collapse of an oceanfront high-rise, suggesting that even as the search continues for survivors, the focus was quickly shifting to accountability for a disaster likely to go down as one of the country's worst.

The announcement by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle did not address whether criminal charges could ultimately be filed, as they have been in other mass-casualty events that were found to be a result of negligence or incompetence.

But while Fernandez Rundle raised the prospect of “potential criminal investigations,” she said the grand jury inquiry would be used to determine “what steps we can take to safeguard our residents.”

“[T]his is a matter of extreme public importance, and as the State Attorney elected to keep this community safe, I will not wait,” she said in a statement.

The announcement was the clearest signal to date that nearly a week after the building fell, leaving at least 12 people dead and 149 missing, the hunt for answers has begun.

So far, few have emerged. The crumbling of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in the coastal town of Surfside has baffled experts, who have identified clues but offered few theories to explain the building’s abrupt cave-in.

The questions of what brought the condominium down, who is to blame and whether other buildings are vulnerable will now be the subject of numerous investigations, the ranks of which were growing Tuesday.

The inquiries include federal, local and privately led efforts, and each involves extraordinary complexity, with an array of factors such as the design of the building and the ocean’s tides on the night of the disaster under review. The most critical evidence, meanwhile, is embedded in an avalanche of pulverized debris. Experts say it will take months for the rubble to be cleared so the site and materials can be properly studied, and it may be years before investigators can offer definitive conclusions.

“Anyone who gets you an answer now can’t possibly have all the data to do a complete analysis,” said Allyn Kilsheimer, an engineer who has been contracted by Surfside to study what happened.

Kilsheimer, who has consulted on major disasters including the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the Florida International University bridge collapse that killed six in 2018, said that in most disasters that were not deliberate, “you get to the end, and you probably don’t have one cause. You have maybe a series of things.”

But as he prepared Tuesday for his first chance to inspect the site where rescuers are still combing through rubble, he said in an interview he was confident those causes could be unearthed, eventually.

“Buildings talk to you,” he said, “if you know how to listen to them.”

Disasters and other ­mass-casualty events — including shooting rampages and terrorist attacks — often lead to a tangle of overlapping, expansive investigations into what happened, what mistakes might have occurred and what lessons can be learned.

But unlike plane crashes or major acts of violence, there is no federal agency poised to step in and investigate in the exceedingly rare event that a building crumbles for no apparent reason.

In Surfside, a federal probe could soon follow the local effort to understand how the collapse occurred. With a half dozen experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology already on the ground to conduct a preliminary inquiry, a decision about a full-scale investigation could come within the next several weeks, said Jennifer Huergo, a spokeswoman for the institute.

If it goes ahead, the aim of any inquiry by the somewhat obscure agency — which employs thousands of chemists, physicists and engineers, some of whom have Nobel Prizes to their names — will be highly specific: to discern “the technical cause of the collapse and, if indicated, to recommend changes to building codes, standards and practices, or other appropriate actions to improve the structural safety of buildings,” Huergo wrote in an email.

The agency has conducted such reviews after other catastrophes: the World Trade Center tower collapses on 9/11; a deadly Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003; the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., in 2011; and, most recently, an ongoing study of Hurricane Maria’s impact in Puerto Rico in 2017.

Previous reviews have led to changes in laws or building codes, though the NIST cannot require that any be adopted.

A federal probe in Surfside would take time, Huergo said, noting that prior investigations have stretched on for more than two years.

After the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island killed 100 people in February 2003, for instance, the NIST established a team a week later and then issued its report in June 2005. The tornado that tore through Joplin in May 2011, killing 161 people, led to a final NIST report publishing nearly three years later.

“After the World Trade Center attack, the support structures for the towers were shipped to the NIST campus. They were there for five or six years,” said Willie May, the NIST’s former director and a 45-year veteran of the agency. “These types of investigations are one of a kind.”

One thing the NIST will not do is find fault. “That’s not NIST’s role,” said May, now a vice president at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “It’s a science and engineering investigation.”

Others, however, may be more interested in ascribing blame.

Noting that Miami-Dade grand juries had previously issued reports and recommendations on topics including building codes and environmental integrity, Fernandez Rundle, the prosecutor, said she would ask a grand jury to look at ways to keep residents safe without imperiling other investigations.

Grand juries in Florida are able to both look at criminal matters and explore issues of public policy, returning indictments as well as reports aimed at recommending changes to lawmakers, according to Michael McAuliffe, the former state attorney in Palm Beach County.

“In Florida, grand juries are designed to handle both criminal investigative matters and issues of public concern,” said McAuliffe, who is now in private practice in West Palm Beach and an adjunct law professor at William & Mary.

McAuliffe said grand juries have two powerful assets separating them from other investigations: They are conducted in secret and wield subpoena power. A grand jury, he said, could produce “a very authoritative report and road map to how to prevent this from being repeated.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) said at a news conference Tuesday that she was “very supportive of the grand jury investigation.”

The Miami-Dade mayor on June 29 announced the grand jury investigation in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla. (Video: The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, privately employed investigators are also at work.

John Pistorino, an engineer who investigated the FIU bridge collapse as well as a Miami Dade College parking garage collapse, has told reporters he has been engaged by “an attorney” to examine what went wrong at Champlain Towers South.

Like other experts, he has been hard-pressed to explain what he has seen in the surveillance video, which he had viewed an estimated 100 times.

“It’s unexplainable. I’m bewildered,” Pistorino told Miami’s Local 10 News. “Concrete gives you a warning. It gives you a warning. It doesn’t fail that fast.”

Lawsuits have already been filed by residents against the Champlain Towers South condominium association, with more expected.

One, filed on Monday, alleges “reckless and negligent conduct” that “caused a catastrophic deadly collapse.”

An engineer who inspected the building in 2018 found “major structural damage.” The condo association president, Jean Wodnicki, wrote to residents in April that “the concrete deterioration is accelerating.” But work to fix the flaws — estimated to cost more than $15 million — had not begun.

The town of Surfside also faces potential liability for its role, with an official having reassured residents in 2018 that the building was “in very good shape.”

Kilsheimer, the engineer hired by the town, said he had twice read the 2018 report warning of flaws in the building’s design, had examined photos showing apparent preexisting water damage and was expecting on Tuesday to get a firsthand view of the wreckage — perhaps from the perch of a crane-mounted basket.

“I need to see it close up to understand,” he said.

So far, he has not come to any conclusions.

Even if the building’s design was flawed and water wasn’t draining from the pool deck, as the 2018 report revealed, he said, “that by itself didn’t make anything fall down.”

While the on-site inspection may be useful, the in-depth analysis will happen later, when the remnants of the building — particularly the lowest slabs of concrete and the supporting columns — are taken off-site and investigators are permitted to “look at it for things we can’t see when it’s under a pile of rubble.”

That, he said, won’t happen for months.

Through it all, Kilsheimer said, he will be looking to understand not only the building’s flaws, but also what might explain how a building that stood for 40 years could come down in an instant on an otherwise unremarkable summer’s night.

“I’ve never seen a building that’s perfect,” he said. “The key is to find a trigger.”

Bellware reported from Chicago. Berman and Witte reported from Washington.

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