Searching for clues in the rubble of Surfside


“Here, here, here, here,” he told the workers, tracing a square along a support structure constructed from the facade of the building to indicate where he wanted radar tests to be done for show the arrangement of the steel reinforcement below the surface.

The gruff 80-year-old, a structural engineer and forensic veteran of disasters like the Pentagon after 9/11 and the collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami in 2018, has been hired by the town of Surfside, Florida. , a day after a condominium collapsed last month that left 79 confirmed dead and 61 still missing.

The north tower, sister of the south Champlain towers, with the same designer architect and structural engineer, became his laboratory.

CNN accompanied him on Friday as he walked through several floors of the 12-story building, ordering tiles removed from the pool deck and concrete samples drilled from the wall of a fifth-floor apartment for a series of tests. which he hopes will help explain the disaster scene on the beach.

“It’s one of the 13,000 pieces of the puzzle,” Kilsheimer said.

As first responders worked around the clock to pull people out of the rubble, Kilsheimer and another group of investigators collected evidence of the fallen structure, its design and maintenance looking for clues that could identify who, if so, should be held accountable. for its collapse.

Overlapping investigations – involving homicide detectives, local prosecutors and government engineers – could take years; and, any desire by the survivors of the collapse or the families of the victims for a criminal resolution will come up against a legal standard that makes accusations in a case like this difficult to lay.

The evidence available to investigators is accumulating day by day.

Scientists in Washington, DC, used drones to take 3D maps of the crash site and tested the makeup of the soil below.

Rescue teams from Pennsylvania search the rubble of the South Champlain Towers on July 8.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the main federal agency charged with investigating the cause of the collapse, has started interviewing those involved in previous inspections of the building.

And local police are sorting over 13 million pounds of concrete pulled from the pile so far. Among the debris, NIST investigators marked more than 200 pieces as potentially important, authorities said on Friday.

After two weeks at the scene, Kilsheimer says he’s considering “all kinds of possibilities” to explain the collapse. A number of factors, from design flaws to deterioration of materials, could have weakened the tower before a “trigger” event brought it down, he said.

His team has investigated trigger theories that he considers highly improbable, such as recent explosives tests carried out at sea by the Navy a few hundred kilometers from the tower. A car crashing into a pillar in the building’s basement garage is a more plausible trigger, he said, although no evidence of one in the weeks leading up to the collapse was has yet been revealed.

“There may be something we will learn by examining the debris that will help us understand what could have been a possible trigger,” he said.

Asked by a journalist what he would look for, he replied: “something that doesn’t do me good in the guts”.

“We’ve been around the block a few times, so I know what things should look like, and I know what happens when they look a little weird, and then you have to rate the ‘little weird’. . “

Earlier this week, the county’s senior prosecutor, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said her office would await the results of the scientific investigation into the cause of the collapse before considering a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, she said in a statement, she launched a grand jury to explore possible reforms to prevent similar meltdowns from happening again in the future. This effort will result in a report similar to that produced by a grand jury in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Andrew of 1992 which led to building code improvements.

Based on the evidence emerging from the Kilsheimer and NIST reviews, bringing a criminal charge would be a challenge, legal experts said, because of the high legal bar prosecutors would face to prove the most likely charge of manslaughter.

A man lays flowers at the memorial which includes photos of some of the victims of the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse on July 8.

Under the charge, prosecutors must show “culpable negligence: that someone’s conduct was” gross and flagrant “with” reckless disregard for human life. “

Documents and reports released since the building collapse have so far painted a picture of a deteriorating 40-year-old structure and a condominium board that has struggled to muster the sum of several million dollars in time for necessary repairs.

Frank Morabito, an engineer hired by the council in 2018 to inspect the building, wrote in a report that year that “the failing waterproofing” under the pool deck “was causing major structural damage to the structural concrete slab. under these areas “and warned that not replacing it in the near future would result in” concrete degradation that would expand exponentially. “

Internal struggles within the board followed the fundraising for the repairs, the cost of which rose from around $ 9 million to $ 15 million by 2021 as the situation worsened.

“A lot of this work could have been done or planned in the past. But that’s where we are now,” wrote board chairman Jean Wodnicki in an April 2021 letter to residents.

None of the reports so far appear to have reached the threshold for culpable negligence, said Dave Aronberg, state attorney for neighboring Palm Beach County.

“Culpable negligence requires knowing that the building collapse was imminent and that someone did nothing,” Aronberg said. “A report that says there is a lot of structural damage and the board didn’t close the building right away or the (official) building didn’t shut down the building right away – this is not criminal. “

Rundle’s office is still under investigation after six people died in the 2018 FIU bridge collapse, according to a spokesperson for the office. The National Transportation Safety Review Board concluded in 2019 that design flaws and insufficient oversight contributed to this collapse.

This aerial photo shows part of the oceanfront condo that collapsed early on June 24.

Under Florida law, negligent manslaughter does not have a statute of limitations.

In the Surfside case, prosecutors will also likely be guided by the eventual report from NIST, the federal agency.

In an interview with CNN last week, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said NIST had interviewed “a lot of people,” including city officials involved in the building inspection.

“Anyone who has any information they’ve questioned,” she said.

Among the group is Surfside Town Building Manager Jim McGuinness, who pledged to fully cooperate with the agency during a phone call with investigators, according to a spokesperson for the CEO’s office. .

NIST investigators also have subpoena power, although they never used it, said Jennifer Huergo, a spokesperson for the agency.

Huergo said the agency’s investigative team is still being put together. People familiar with the agency’s work have warned that a full investigation could take years.

The FBI is not currently investigating the Surfside collapse, according to a US official, but a federal criminal investigation could be opened depending on the NIST findings.

In the meantime, the first finding of potential wrongdoing would likely come in civil court, where lawsuits against the condominium board have escalated since the collapse and the standard of negligence is lower.

At a hearing this week, a court-appointed receiver representing the Champlain Towers South Condominium Board of Directors said he was investigating the contractors who have worked on the building in recent years as well as the developer d ‘a luxury high-rise building next to Champlain Towers South. other “potential defendants” in the case who could be held responsible for the collapse.

Their addition to the case could dramatically increase the amount of insurance money available to tower residents.

Members of the search and rescue teams gather for a moment of silence and prayer at the victims' memorial in the collapsed condo building of the South Champlain Towers on July 7.

A judge overseeing the cases, Michael Hanzman, has said he wants to complete the proceedings and get compensation into the hands of the victims within a year.

“This business is going to evolve at a rapid pace,” Hanzman said. “These victims want to know what happened, they want to be compensated as much as possible, and I pledge – the court commits – to put that behind them, at least from a legal point of view, as soon as possible. “

Kilsheimer also said he’s going as fast as he can. He only sleeps a few hours each night before heading to the office at 2 a.m. so he can work uninterrupted.

“It was not an act of God, I don’t believe,” he said. “We’re going to find out. There might be people who don’t like what we’ve discovered, but we’re going to find out.”


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