SURFSIDE – In the days following the collapse of Champlain Towers South, town, county, state and federal officials worked side-by-side, seeming to put politics aside while laser-focused on finding survivors, recovering victims, and providing support to the families of the missing, dead and displaced.
But almost two months later, Surfside officials are livid at the lack of progress to investigate why the 12-story, 136-unit oceanfront condominium complex collapsed in the middle of the night, killing 98 people.
Town leaders said it appears the county and court-appointed property receiver are preventing them access to both the collapse site and recovered debris, which is being stored in offsite warehouses and is critical to the town’s investigation. And they fear the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is potentially compromising some of that evidence.
Now, almost seven weeks after the collapse, the Surfside Town Commission on Tuesday said they are done waiting.
The commission voted unanimously to pursue legal action against Miami-Dade County, the court-appointed receiver for Champlain Towers South, and any other entities that are preventing the town’s hired expert — Allyn Kilsheimer of KCE Structural Engineers — from accessing the site where the collapse occurred, as well as from the warehouses where debris from the site is being stored.
“We’ve had the pre-eminent world-class expert on the site since the beginning ready to go and he’s been shut out,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said of Kilsheimer.
In the course of his investigation, Kilsheimer found that two of nine other buildings he has inspected in Surfside required immediate shoring and bracing, and he recommended those associations hire engineers to complete further assessments.
It is indicative of how potentially pervasive structural issues might be with older complexes, particularly on the water, and underscores the need for a timely and thorough investigation into what caused the Champlain collapse and how other buildings might or might not face similar problems, officials said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“We need to know how safe our community is,” said Commissioner Nelly Velasquez. “We need to know how safe our Earth is beneath our feet, and we need to know that as soon as possible.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava “did a marvelous job, and has done and continues to do a marvelous job,” Burkett said. “However, with respect to this very, very narrow issue, I think there is a loss of focus.”
Leaning forward in his chair in a conference room at Surfside Town Hall recently, Burkett pulled no punches when he told The Palm Beach Post that he believes the glacial pace of the county to either pursue its own investigation or enable the town to complete theirs, could result in tragedy.
“The people that eventually make the decisions on whether to immediately proceed with an investigation as to why the building fell down are the ones that are ultimately going to be responsible if, God forbid, we end up with a catastrophe in our town again,” Burkett said. “And that’s not something I want to be anywhere near.”
In a strongly-worded July 23 letter toLevine Cava, Burkett said as much, questioning why the county seems to be hindering the town’s investigation.
“If we are denied the ability to access the site, a property within our own municipality, and we cannot do the investigations that our expert has prescribed because of the County’s refusal to give us access, then the County must assume full and complete responsibility for any loss of life and any other damages that may result,” Burkett wrote.
More:Remembering those who died in the Champlain Towers condo collapse in Surfside, Florida
When asked why Kilsheimer has not been granted access to the debris, Cava’s office referred The Post to Cava’s July 29 reply to Burkett, in which Cava wrote that it is “essential that we get answers and accountability about exactly what happened,” and that the “safety and well-being of every single resident of Miami-Dade” is her “top priority.”
Cava in that reply also encouraged Surfside to continue inspecting Champlain Towers North, which is the “sister” building to the one that collapsed, as well as any other buildings within the town’s jurisdiction.
She wrote that the county’s process of hiring a forensic engineer to investigate the collapse was “well underway,” and that it is “vital that the investigation move forward as speedily as possible while maintaining the integrity of the collapse site and all evidence.”
As such, she concluded, “access to the site has been limited.”
‘They want this to go away as fast as possible’
But seven weeks after the collapse, the county still has not hired an engineer. And Kilsheimer still has not been granted access to the debris, Burkett pointed out. In fact, the county did not even put out an online post for the forensic engineer position until July 28 — five weeks after the collapse.
“At the present time, we have not extended a contract to a forensic engineer, we are still in the procurement process,” a spokesperson from the department wrote in a recent statement to The Post.
Surfside commissioner and former prosecutor Eliana Salzhauer thinks she might know why.
“I don’t think anybody wants to hear the truth, because the truth is going to cost them money,” she said at Tuesday night’s meeting. “They want this to go away as fast as possible.”
The reason, Salzhauer said, is simple: The receiver wants to get as much money as possible for the families and the county wants the spotlight off a problem that could devalue properties.
“That value can be decimated if it turns out there is a sinkhole, if it turns out there is a structural problem — that that ground is now worthless,” she said. “There are so many unknowns here and nobody really wants to know … they’re hoping everyone will not pay attention, they’ll get their money, the thing will be sold and will pass on. We’re trying to stop that speeding train.”
Kilsheimer said the investigation currently being conducted by the Miami-Dade police, in conjunction with the state attorney, is a criminal, not structural, investigation, which is the reason police have given for not allowing Surfside access to the debris. And the federal investigation being conducted by NIST is focused on policy, not cause, he said.
“NIST is not going to determine why the building fell down,” Kilsheimer said. “They are going to come up with what materials should be used in certain environments, change building codes, make suggestions — like a bureau of standards. They are not forensic collapse experts.”
Kilshiemer stands ready, willing and able to proceed with an investigation into the cause of the Champlain collapse, he said, be it on behalf of Surfside or the county. Residents are scared, he said, and they want answers.
“We, on almost a daily basis, get several phone calls from people that live in that area that want us to talk about if their building is safe, are they safe,” Kilsheimer said.
The commission discussed at Tuesday’s meeting that one reason for the cold shoulder from the county might be because Surfside potentially could be a defendant in a future lawsuit relating to the collapse, and the county might question Kilsheimer’s allegiances.
Kilsheimer bristled at the notion, saying that, if released from his contract with Surfside and hired by the county, he will in no way conduct an investigation or render a report based on any form of bias, favoritism or protection for any person or entity.
“In my mind, they’re concerned I am going to say something to cover Surfside’s ass in some way shape or form, and that’s not how we do things,” Kilsheimer said. “I’ve never had anybody say that I wouldn’t tell it the way it was no matter who I was working for, and I personally take this as an insult that they are questioning my honesty.”
Burkett agreed, writing in his letter to Levine Cava that “the investigation we conduct and the preservation of any remaining evidence are not mutually exclusive,” and that the town would “happily work” with the county to “do our investigation and carefully and thoughtfully as possible,” while “freely sharing all raw data that we collect from our testing with any agency or interested party.”
Levine Cava’s office, however, said that it is not the county, but the court-appointed receiver for Champlain Towers South — an attorney out of Fort Lauderdale — who is prohibiting Kilsheimer access to the debris. Her office provided The Post a letter from the receiver dated July 29 saying as much.
That receiver, Michael Goldberg, did not respond to verbal and written requests from the Post to explain why or at who’s directive he determined Kilsheimer should not have access to the collapse site or the stored debris, and if, or when he has any intention of granting that access.
Debris, deemed critical to collapse investigation, being destroyed
While Kilsheimer is being denied access to both the warehoused debris and the collapse site, he said that, against the judge’s orders, he has heard NIST has been conducting “destructive testing” on evidence. That means, he said, that NIST could be destroying critical evidence that might reveal the cause of the collapse.
“NIST is not sharing with us what they are doing,” Kilsheimer said. “They can be doing things …. that make it impossible for us to do what we need to do in the ground. Maybe they found the one spot that’s really bad, but we’ll never find that spot because they took it and won’t tell us what they did.”
At a hearing Wednesday morning in Miami, a judge handling the receivership warned Goldberg that no destruction or alteration of evidence will be permitted.
In response, Goldberg said that he spoke with NIST official Judith Mitrani-Reiser, who has been co-leading the team of scientists conducting a preliminary investigation into Surfside, and she stressed that NIST was doing its testing in the least invasive way possible.
Burkett said he is beyond frustrated that NIST is processing evidence without Kilsheimer, and that the county is not yet investigating the cause of the collapse at all.
He offered to release Kilsheimer from his contract with Surfside or assign that contract over to the county so an investigation can move forward expeditiously but said the county has not accepted that offer.
“We all just want to find out why the building fell,” Burkett said. “We don’t need Surfside to do the investigation; we just need an investigation to be done quickly.”
Levine Cava’s office told The Post that neither Burkett nor Kilsheimer offered Kilsheimer’s services to the county, and that Kilsheimer failed to formally apply for the job when if was posted online.
But Burkett said Kilsheimer had already been conducting an investigation for five weeks at that point and “everyone” knew it.
“It’s really hard for me to believe that anybody was confused about the fact that Surfside would be willing to make Mr. Kilsheimer available to do any work whatsoever related to determining the cause of the collapse, which would have included un-contracting his services with us and helping him to get on board with the county,” Burkett said. “We still have lives at risk, and we need to get to the bottom of this.”
The Miami Dade Police Department did not respond to a request to explain if Kilsheimer was ever considered for the county job and why or why not.
‘Rolling the dice on their lives’
Kilsheimer, a 64-year veteran of building collapse investigations, has investigated about 30 to 40 collapses, he said, including the Pentagon after 9/11, the Florida International University bridge collapse in 2018, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and probes around the world, including in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
He said that inspecting the south tower debris is critical to determining not only why the south tower fell, but if the “sister” building — Champlain Towers North — which has been subject to voluntary evacuation since shortly after the south tower fell, is safe for occupancy.
“The odds of that happening are very low, and I recognize that, but here’s the question — can we take that chance?” Burkett said. “Who’s willing to roll the dice on the lives of those people in that building? And if you are not focusing on that as your No. 1 concern, I would submit you are rolling the dice on their lives.”
Champlain Towers North, located three lots north of the south tower, was built at the same time by the same developer and with similar plans, Burkett pointed out in his letter to Levine Cava, and probably used the same contractor and similar materials.
And until there is an official determination as to what caused the south tower to fall, there is an imminent concern for the safety of those in the surrounding areas.
“The safety of the residents living in the Champlain Towers North building and other oceanfront buildings must not be ignored, nor can action to protect them be delayed,” Burkett wrote.
Kilsheimer agreed. While he initially said the north tower was safe, he says now that a deeper investigation of the south tower needs to be done to confirm that, and that not enough is known about the construction of either tower to ascertain any risks to north tower residents.
“On neither building is there any information about load tests, and they don’t even give the length of the pilings,” he said about records that would typically indicate the standards to which both towers were initially built. “They don’t exist. The only records we have are the drawings this town has. Things like load tests, concrete breaks, they don’t get filed with cities.”
Kilsheimer based his earlier, rosier assessment of the north tower based on preliminary inspections, engineering analyses and “random” concrete samplings of that building. But because it is virtually impossible to safely access the foundation in an occupied complex, he said, he cannot unequivocally guarantee a zero risk of structural failure.
“My level of concern is, there are things that I don’t know,” he said. “That’s my concern — the things that I don’t know.”
NIST has said its investigation could take years. Cava’s spokesperson would not give an estimate on how long the county’s investigation might take once an engineer is hired, and Miami Dade police did not respond to a request for a time frame.
Kilsheimer said if given access to the debris, he could conclude his investigation within “months.”
“I don’t understand why, whoever is really trying to understand why this building fell down, can’t go with the team we have or somebody equal to that team,” he said. “They have a reason. Why? I don’t know.”