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Inquiries Into What Went Wrong In Surfside Could Take Years To Complete

Rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building Monday in Surfside, Fla. Some 150 people remain unaccounted for after the building partially collapsed last week.
Rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building Monday in Surfside, Fla. Some 150 people remain unaccounted for after the building partially collapsed last week.

Updated June 28, 2021 at 8:18 PM ET

Researchers from a government agency that investigated the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 are already on-site at Surfside, Fla.

A team from NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is in the preliminary stages of an investigation into what caused the apparent building failure early Thursday at the Champlain Towers South condo building north of Miami Beach.

The agency is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. NIST's disaster and failure program has assessed the effects of the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., and Hurricane Maria's devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017 in addition to its World Trade Center inquiry.

Federal investigation will probe causes of the building's collapse

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at a news conference Monday she expects the agency's preliminary study will find that a full investigation is merited.

As a "fact-finding, not fault-finding agency," Wasserman Schultz said NIST will be able to help Congress adopt changes in federal law to "make sure that when the structures are built, that something like this could never, never happen again." That means possible changes to laws governing building construction and code enforcement.

The investigation should also help answer questions the Florida Democrat says she's been asked repeatedly: "How are we going to deal with the long-term implications of this? Did this only impact just this building?"

"We have structures like this all the way up the coastline of the United States," she noted.

The death toll at Surfside rose to 11 on Monday, and the number of people unaccounted for is now 150. Search and rescue efforts are ongoing, and state and local officials emphasized those are the first priority right now.

A need for swift evidence-gathering in the first days after a disaster

Jason Averill, chief of NIST's Materials and Structural Systems Division of its engineering laboratory, told NPR member station WLRN that there's a need for speed during the investigation's first stage.

"We know following a disaster, some of the most important pieces of evidence that might point to what happened can disappear if we're not down there quickly to ensure that it's preserved and can become part of the investigative record," he said.

Averill said the findings could be used to inform broader changes that might be necessary.

"Are there many other buildings of this design? Are there materials issues that are common to many other buildings?" Averill said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating the collapse, Averill said, from the perspective of a workplace safety issue for work happening on-site. Roof repairs were underway at the time of the disaster.

A federal investigation will look into what went wrong with Champlain Towers South. "We have structures like this all the way up the coastline of the United States," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Monday.
Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images
A federal investigation will look into what went wrong with Champlain Towers South. "We have structures like this all the way up the coastline of the United States," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Monday.

A full investigation will likely take years, not days

If a full investigation is undertaken by the agency, Averill said it would likely take "at least a couple of years," a timeline that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis echoed on Monday.

"[NIST's investigation] is going to be something that's important. It is something it's going to be very thorough, and is something that is not going to happen in a day or two. This is going to take a long time. That's the time horizon they work on," DeSantis said.

The governor mentioned at least two other inquiries underway, which he said may have results sooner: one by the town of Surfside, and one by Miami-Dade County with the state's attorney.

Those inquiries will no doubt examine an October 2018 engineering report that found major structural problems with the building — and what was done with that information.

A Surfside official told Champlain Towers South residents at a board meeting the following month that the building was safe, NPR first reported Sunday. According to the minutes from the board meeting, the town inspector said he had reviewed the report and told residents, "It appears the building is in very good shape."

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Monday that the reported comments were "disturbing" and that he has directed his staff to locate all relevant documents and have them scanned so they are available for public view.

"We will get to the bottom of it," Burkett said.

State and local investigations are also underway

Miami-Dade County requires all buildings at least 40 years old to be inspected and recertified, then recertified every 10 years afterward. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the county will immediately begin an audit of residential buildings of five stories or higher that are due for recertification.

DeSantis pledged state support in providing whatever is needed in the state and local inquiries, including engineers and experts.

"I think the people of Florida want to understand: How could this happen? And then what could we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?" the governor said. "We'll be working on that for the long term."

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade police are handling homicide investigations into the deaths of the building's residents.

There will no doubt be other investigations, too. Some condo owners in the complex have filed a class-action lawsuit against the condo association, seeking "to compensate the victims of this unfathomable loss."

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