Remaining Surfside Condo Structure Is Demolished

The damaged remaining structure at the Champlain Towers South condo building collapses in a controlled demolition, Sunday, July 4, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.
Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The remaining part of a collapsed building in South Florida was demolished in a burst of explosives that took the unstable structure down in seconds, after officials worried that it might not withstand the powerful winds of an approaching tropical storm and that rescue workers could be endangered.

The demolition, which took place at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, came after officials warned residents to stay inside in case dust and other particles polluted the air, and as anguished families continued to away news in the search for 121 people missing since the building in Surfside collapsed more than a week ago. Rescue efforts had halted for much of the weekend amid growing worries about the unstable structure.

Officials said that the demolition, which was initially thought to be weeks away, was needed to restart rescue efforts. They described the operation as one that would be contained to as small a footprint as possible — and that would aim to avoid disturbing the area where rescuers have been searching for the missing.

“Our top priority is bringing down this building,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on Sunday. “As soon as the building does come down, when the site has been deemed secure, and we are given the all clear, our search and rescue teams will immediately resume their operations,” she said.

Later Sunday, the authorities identified another victim of the collapse: David Esptein, 58. The death toll remained unchanged, at 24.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said that concerns about the remaining part of the building left few options but demolition. Many residents of the building who survived had fled the portion that remained standing; many left with whatever they had with them in the moment of the collapse and have not been permitted to enter the teetering structure since. Passports, wedding rings, cherished photos were left behind.

“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” Mr. DeSantis said. “I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that. But I don’t think that there’s any way you could let someone go back up into that building given the shape that it’s in now.”

Mr. DeSantis said that while Surfside was not expected to see the worst of an arriving tropical storm, the city could still experience strong winds and heavy rain.

On Sunday, Elsa was about 40 miles southeast of Cabo Cruz, Cuba, with winds of up to 60 m.p.h., the National Hurricane Center said. Elsa, which was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane on Saturday, was expected to make landfall near the Florida Keys by Monday, then move over parts of Florida’s west coast on Tuesday and Wednesday, forecasters said.

“We want to make sure that we control which way the building falls, and not a hurricane,” Mayor Charles Burkett of Surfside said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the method of demolition relied on explosives and gravity to take the building’s remains down.

She also said that the Miami Dade Fire Rescue team had swept the building three times to search for pet animals left behind. “The latest information we have is that there are no animals remaining in the building,” Ms. Levine Cava said.

Bringing down the remaining part of the tower might help searchers access part of the rubble they could not safely reach before, Ms. Levine Cava said. Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said one-third of the debris pile has yet to be searched.

North Miami Beach officials had tried for years to bring a 10-story condo building, Crestview Towers, into compliance. It was evacuated on Friday.
Credit…Giulia Heyward/The New York Times

Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation. But after parts of Champlain Towers South tumbled down on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving 121 unaccounted for, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments, and sometimes not at all.

Miami-Dade County officials said last week that they were prioritizing reviews of 24 multistory buildings that either had failed major structural or electrical inspections required after 40 years or had not submitted the reports in the first place. But the county’s own records show that 17 of those cases had been open for a year or more. Two cases were against properties owned by the county itself. The oldest case had sat unresolved since 2008.

The city of North Miami Beach had tried and failed for years to bring a 10-story condo building within its borders, Crestview Towers, into compliance with the 40-year recertification requirements. When the building’s condo association finally submitted the required paperwork last week, about nine years late, it documented critical safety concerns, a city spokesman said. Officials evacuated the building on Friday.

Meanwhile, the same local governments were pursuing a haphazard approach to identifying other potentially unsafe buildings across the region, with the age and height criteria that would prompt added scrutiny varying from one place to the next. At least one local government, the village of Key Biscayne, was opting to conduct no extra inspections at all, an official there said.

Even if building auditors focus only on towers of 10 stories or more that were built in the 1970s and 1980s, the task would still be daunting. An analysis of property records by The New York Times shows that at least 270 such buildings dot the skylines of Miami-Dade County’s cities, villages and towns, with dozens more in the county’s unincorporated reaches.

Intense waves during the passage of tropical storm Elsa in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on Saturday.
Credit…Orlando Barria/EPA, via Shutterstock

As Tropical Storm Elsa approaches Florida, officials say they hope that the brunt of the storm will spare Surfside, the site of the building collapse. They are cautioning residents closer to the storm’s predicted path, west of the Miami area, to prepare for heavy rain and possible power outages.

On Sunday afternoon, Elsa was about 40 miles southeast of Cabo Cruz, Cuba, with winds of up to 60 m.p.h., according to the National Hurricane Center. Elsa was blamed for the deaths of at least three people in St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic as it tore toward Cuba and Jamaica on Sunday morning.

Elsa, which was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane on Saturday, was expected to move near the Florida Keys by Monday, then over parts of the West Coast of Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday, forecasters said.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said crews in Surfside, Fla., were still anticipating possible effects from the storm that would temporarily force them to stop working for their own safety.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said officials were continuing to monitor the storm’s anticipated path.

“Obviously, these tracks can change,” the governor said.

The Hurricane Center on Sunday issued tropical storm watches and warnings for parts of the Florida Keys and South Florida. Tropical storm conditions were expected in parts of the Florida Keys by late Monday.

Elsa could dump up to 6 inches of rain over the Florida Keys and Florida Peninsula, which could result in flooding, the center said. Parts of Florida could see a storm surge up to 3 feet.

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, most deaths related storms in recent years had occurred after the storms had passed.

“Be ready to be without power for an extended period of time,” he said.

Should residents lose power, Mr. DeSantis urged Floridians with generators to avoid using them indoors; carbon monoxide poisonings have occurred in recent years, he said.

The mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett, said effects from the storm were only the latest challenge facing rescue workers in the collapsed building.

“We do not have a resource problem, we only have a luck problem,” he said, “and this storm is the latest bit of challenging circumstances that we’re facing.”

The Seattle Kingdome collapsing during its implosion in Seattle in 2000.
Credit…Dan Levine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Controlled Demolition Inc., the company hired to demolish the remaining section of the Champlain Towers South condo, has more than 70 years of experience bringing down some of the world’s biggest structures, including the Seattle Kingdome in 2000.

The company was also involved in work at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing and on the World Trade Center days after the attack on Sept. 11.

Based in Maryland, the company says it has destroyed thousands of buildings on six continents using explosives. Some of its largest demolition projects have included the Kosciuszko Bridge, in New York City in 2017, according to its website. The company also says that it has set records, including the destruction of 17 buildings at a single time in Puerto Rico. Controlled Demolition didn’t immediately return a phone message or email left outside of working hours on Sunday.

The company specializes in using precise, controlled explosions to bring down large structures, especially in urban areas. But it also demolishes them using more traditional methods using cranes and other mechanical devices.

Florida officials have shared few details about how the damaged Surfside building will be taken down, besides saying that the company will use small explosives to have what is left of the tower fall on itself. Demolition experts began their work on Saturday, which led to a halt on search and rescue efforts.

Chris Jeffers placed flowers on a barricade fence that has become a makeshift memorial near the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse site in Surfside, Fla.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Elena Blasser kept her two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the Champlain Towers South as a beachside gathering place for family reunions. She adored the ocean and the small town of Surfside, Fla., because they reminded her of homes in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

She sank at least $100,000 into renovations when she bought Penthouse 11 a little more than a decade ago. Then the complex’s problems began. Hairline cracks in the pool deck. Newly painted walls that chipped easily. Water pooling in the garage. To pay for it all, the monthly maintenance fees and special assessments grew.

“We’re paying those fees and where are they going?” Ms. Blasser, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher, kept telling her family and neighbors, according to her son Pablo Rodriguez.

Little did she know that the problems identified in the building were about to get much worse. A consultant’s report commissioned in 2018 had identified serious problems of crumbling concrete and corroded rebar — problems that engineers warned had already led to “major structural damage.”

Fixing it, the condo board eventually concluded, would cost an estimated $15 million. Ms. Blasser would have to come up with another $120,000 to pay her share.

Long before half of the Champlain Towers South crumpled to the ground on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving up to 121 unaccounted for — including Ms. Blasser and her mother, Elena Chavez, 88 — the rancor over how the building was run by its condominium association was an open secret known to the relatives and friends of the people who lived there, and even to residents of other nearby buildings.

Police patrol outside Crestview Towers, above, which was evacuated Friday, in North Miami Beach, Fla., on Saturday. Another building was evacuated in Miami Beach on Saturday.
Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

A Miami Beach condominium was evacuated by firefighters Saturday night after a building inspector reported finding potentially dangerous structural issues.

The inspector found problems with part of the flooring system and an exterior wall in the three-story building, which is about seven miles from the site of the collapsed condo in Surfside, according to Melissa Berthier, a spokeswoman for Miami Beach. Residents of the building were ordered to leave until the city conducts a fuller investigation of the building; 13 of the building’s 24 units had been occupied.

Tim Voda, president of Regatta Real Estate Management, which manages the condo association, said that he hadn’t heard about any issues in the building from owners previously.

“I don’t know if it necessitated shutting down the entire building,” Voda said. He added that the property manager would bring in an engineer and work to resolve the issue. “We’re going to get these people back in their homes as fast as possible.”

The building is the second to be evacuated in Miami-Dade County since the Surfside collapse, as local officials apply intense scrutiny to the safety of the area’s aging apartment buildings.

On Friday, residents of a 156-unit building in North Miami Beach were told to leave immediately after the building submitted a report based on a January inspection that documented “unsafe structural and electrical conditions.” The Crestview Towers condo submitted the report in response to a building audit undertaken by the city at the recommendation of Miami-Dade County officials.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, spent Friday night assisting families displaced from Crestview. Families were told they could stay temporarily at a makeshift shelter at the county fairgrounds a 40-minute drive away.

As municipalities in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere continue to conduct audits of older buildings following the collapse, he said he fears that displaced families will pay the price.

“This is likely the first of probably many, and not just here,” said Mr. Book. “These are old, old, old buildings.”

The city of Miami Beach is also investigating the condition of its older buildings following the Surfside collapse. In a letter on Thursday, Alina Hudak, the city manager in Miami Beach, said that the city’s building department had issued letters requiring safety reports and was visiting more than 500 buildings that are more than 40 years old or approaching that age.

Residents of Crestview Towers condominium stood outside the building on Friday as it was being evacuated. The city of North Miami Beach deemed the building unsafe after receiving an engineer’s report outlining structural and electrical problems.
Credit…Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA, via Shutterstock

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Miguel Jiménez was busy at work Friday, detailing a car, when a neighbor called. They had an hour to evacuate their apartments at Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach.

He immediately started thinking about the loud cracking sound he heard last week, and the time a pipe burst, flooding all the units in the building. The floors were still ruined, and the building’s concrete columns have seen sturdier days.

“Everything is damaged in this building, everything,” he said, standing beside the yellow crime-scene tape outside the building where Mr. Jiménez and his family have lived for six years.

Mayors in many cities and Miami-Dade County ordered audits of all buildings over 40 years old, which were supposed to be getting certifications at that age. Crestview’s certification was nine years overdue, and the building was cited by the city of North Miami Beach every year that it did not comply, a spokeswoman for the city said.

City records indicate that Crestview has been fined a total of nearly $600,000 by the city since 2014, though the records do not specify what the fines were for.

After the collapse in Surfside, seven miles away, the city nudged harder. North Miami Beach’s city manager ordered his own audit on Tuesday, and Crestview was sent another notice and fined.

Crestview’s building manager finally showed up at the city building department on Friday, with an 11-page engineering report that was dated in January. The report determined that the building was both structurally and electrically unsafe for continued occupancy.

The president of the condominium board referred questions to the board’s lawyer, Mariel Tollinchi.

Ms. Tollinchi said that the board disagreed with the need for the evacuation, and that the engineer’s report from January made the cracks and other problems seem worse than they were. She said the board had hired another engineer to provide more detail, and was gathering estimates for the necessary repair work.

The structural repairs were coming in at around $250,000, but the necessary electrical work was priced “in the millions,” she said, adding that unit owners were already paying up to $300 a month in assessments to finance the work. Residents should be back in the building within 30 days, Ms. Tollinchi said.

On its website, the management company posted a notice 11 days ago saying that it was working on improvements, including roofing, a new generator, and new lighting systems indoors and out. It said the city had demanded the lighting work for the 40-year certification, “which is something we could not postpone any longer.” The notice did not mention the cracked concrete and corroded rebar outlined in the engineer’s report.

Residents who evacuated on Friday were told that they could stay at a shelter on the county fairgrounds, a 40-minute drive away. “I would rather sleep in my car,” Mr. Jiménez said.

He wondered whether the unit owners, the city, the management company — anybody — would help relocate rental tenants like him who could not come up with at least $6,000 for security deposits and advance rent on another apartment.

Estefania Grajales, 25, and her husband, Holman J. Pérez, said they were napping Friday evening and heard about the evacuation order from a neighbor. Reporters were already outside, and people were rushing around with luggage. Ms. Grajales said it took an hour to get down from the eighth floor, because every time the elevator doors opened, the car was jammed with someone else’s prized possessions.

“Suitcases, bicycles, cabinets, children, everything,” Ms. Grajales said. “This did not happen one day to the next. It was one hour to the next.”

They stayed the night in an inn on Biscayne Blvd. “It was a mo-tel, not a ho-tel,” Mr. Pérez said.

Residents noted that many people in the building were fairly recent immigrants with no family nearby to stay with. Mr. Jimenez is from Venezuela, Ms. Grajales from Colombia, and Mr. Perez from Nicaragua.

Standing outside the building on Saturday hoping to get more information about what would happen with the building, Mr. Perez noted that he had less at stake than some residents did: “I’m a renter, thankfully.”

Search and rescue crews exiting the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Fla., on Monday.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Six emergency medical workers helping with rescue efforts at the site of a collapsed condo in Surfside, Fla., have tested positive for the coronavirus, Alan R. Cominsky, the chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said at a news conference on Saturday.

The workers, who were all part of the same task force, were no longer at the site, Chief Cominsky said, adding that contact tracing had been performed and that 424 members of other Florida task force teams responding to the site had been tested.

Chief Cominsky did not address the conditions of the six workers in his comments. It was unclear whether they had been vaccinated.

The chief told The Miami Herald on Friday that the six emergency medical workers were firefighters from Florida, but that they were not from Miami-Dade.

“We do have our medical procedures in place,” he told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, this is another challenge, but something we’ve been dealing with for over the past year.”

Average daily reports of new cases in Florida have risen by 55 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. Across the state, 65 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

At the news conference on Saturday, Chief Cominsky said the rescue effort would continue with teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana in addition to those from Florida.

Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”

Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”

Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”

Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.

Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.

Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.

Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.

Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.

Also killed in the collapse was Magaly Elena Delgado, 80.

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