Near the debris pile of a collapsed condo building in Surfside, Fla., photos of the missing adorn a chain-link fence, surrounded by flowers and notes of encouragement, as an army of rescuers on Monday continued a desperate search for 150 people, including four Canadians, believed still buried under the rubble.
On the sixth day since most of the Champlain Towers South pancaked into the ground, mourning gave way to calls for recriminations against those believed responsible for the disaster, from the city government to the condo board to the late Canadian developer who led construction of the building.
Philip Zyne, who lives in Champlain North, an almost identical building nearby, said his building has been better maintained and didn’t suffer any of the problems he’s heard about in the South tower: flooding in the parkade, corrosion in the rebar holding up the concrete.
“You take two identical Rolls-Royces; one is properly maintained, you always change the oil, and the other one has nothing done to it and you allow the sea spray to corrode it,” he said. “One will look great and the other will look like garbage.”
The centre and one wing of the L-shaped Champlain South came crashing down around 1:30 a.m. Thursday in Surfside, a Miami suburb of about 5,600 on one of the narrow islands between the city and the Atlantic Ocean. Eleven people have been confirmed dead, and another 11 injured. Two survivors were pulled out of the rubble in the early hours of the rescue. Global Affairs Canada has not publicly identified the Canadians among the missing.
The concrete slab complex was built in 1981 by a consortium led by Nathan Reiber, a Polish-born Canadian businessman, who relocated to Florida from Toronto in the early 1980s amid accusations of tax evasion. He died in 2014. Champlain North went up the following year. Champlain Towers East was constructed between them in 1994 using a different design.
Mr. Zyne, a 71-year-old lawyer, said he and his wife, Nora, 69, have five friends who lived in the South building and are missing in the collapse. “We’re very sad. We realize after five days and 12 floors of concrete falling that there’s not likely to be good news,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the site of the tragedy. “But there’s always a chance.”
One Canadian who saw her condominium destroyed Thursday said the building’s conditions weren’t unusual. Emilia Mattei, who owns a unit in Champlain South with her husband, Patrick, was home in Laval, Que., when the building collapsed. The couple hasn’t left Canada in a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They had planned a trip to Florida later this year.
“The media made it sound like the building was falling apart [before the collapse]. … All the buildings along the coast are in the same type of condition, too,” she said in a telephone interview. “Nobody made it urgent. ... Why would they live there if they knew of the conditions?”
At least on the outside, there isn’t much to set Champlain South apart from dozens of other, similar-looking drab concrete blocks along the Surfside beachfront. But a 2018 engineering report, prepared for the condo board ahead of a mandatory 40-year building recertification, flagged serious problems.
It found the waterproofing in the pool deck was not sloped to allow water to drain away. Water had damaged concrete slabs in the parkade under the pool, the report by Morabito Consultants found, leading to cracks and exposed rebar. The condo board had not yet begun the necessary repairs at the time of the collapse.
Robert Lisman, who lives in Champlain East, called it “a perfect storm of negligence.” He says he believes there are many potential culprits who should be held accountable, from the builders to the city government to the condo board.
“I hear people say that no could have predicted this, but that’s not the point – they knew there were problems and they did nothing,” Mr. Lisman, a 37-year-old marketing adviser, said as he stood Monday in the 29 C heat a block from the site of the catastrophe.
He was awake working that night when he felt the rumble of the building falling. But with his headphones in, he didn’t hear anything and didn’t think much of it. At 6 a.m., his wife woke him with the news.
Like most people here, he only learned of the 2018 inspection report and the ignored warnings after the fact. But in retrospect, he says, there were signs the Champlain South was troubled. When Mr. Lisman’s building replaced its balconies last year, he said, the South tower was scheduled for a similar project. But it never happened.
“We knew they had a balcony renovation project that they never did because they couldn’t get the money to raise the funds,” he said. “They were struggling to do what we did.”
Kathleen Kennedy, who lives one town over from Surfside, came to the site on Monday to pay her respects. She said slipshod construction and maintenance are endemic in the Miami suburbs, where a forest of condo towers proliferated to meet a once seemingly endless demand for oceanside real estate.
“In old buildings like these, the rain water floods you,” she said, adding she and her neighbours have persistent leaks in their living rooms.
Réal Paré, who also owned a unit in Champlain South, watched his holiday property destroyed on CNN. Mr. Paré was at home in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Lambert when a friend texted at 7 a.m. to ask if he was in Florida. Moments later, his daughter called and told him to turn on the television. “It’s a mix of emotions. You think about the people who are there,” he told the TVA television network. “It’s the people who matter.”
With reports from Stephanie Chambers and Tu Thanh Ha
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