As a federal team of experts prepared to deploy from Maryland to assess the scene, Miami first responders and helping agencies were still conducting a search and rescue operation at the site of a collapsed high-rise apartment complex in Surfside, Florida, on Friday night, June 25.
According to Fox News, at least 159 individuals are still missing, with four persons confirmed killed early Thursday morning due to the collapse. Crews are searching for any survivors buried beneath the wreckage, employing various procedures and equipment to detect any signs of life.
Only one deceased victim had been identified: 54-year-old Stacie Fang, whose son was rescued alive from the wreckage.
People have starting speculating on what may have caused the catastrophe even before the inquiry into the collapse has begun.
Dr. Albert M. Bleakley, a structural and geotechnical engineering expert at the Florida Institute of Technology, offers courses about the Harbour Cay and Hyatt Regency walkway collapses in Cocoa Beach, both of which occurred in 1981.
Collapses occurred during or shortly after construction in those cases because of a combination of design and construction errors.
“The Surfside collapse is very different in that the building was OK for around 40 years prior to the collapse,” he said.
Dr. Bleakley also listed several potential causes, though he cautioned that it is still too early to say for sure.
“Parts of the foundation may have settled at different rates, which can cause stresses in the structure,” he said. “Concrete could have developed cracks over time which then slowly expanded, like a crack in a windshield.”
According to Bleakley, metal components could have corroded or rusted after being exposed to salty sea air or water for an extended period of time.
“The building could have been exposed to an unexpected load or combination of loads that overloaded structural elements,” he said, “[And renovations or repairs to the building could have inadvertently damaged structural elements.”
Dr. Shimon Wdowinski of Florida International University did a study in 2020 on land and sea level rise that found the Champlain Towers site was sinking by 1 to 3 millimeters per year in the 1990s. He explained this week how that could have sped up or slowed down over the decades or it could have continued unevenly. Other cities, however, experience substantially greater sinking without experiencing building collapses, according to a new study by FIU.
“When we measure subsidence or when we see movement of the buildings, it’s worth checking why it happens,” Wdowinski said. “We cannot say what is the reason for that from the satellite images but we can say there was movement here.”
According to Glenn Corbett, a former member of the Federal Advisory Committee of the National Construction Safety Team and a fire protection engineer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, a federal investigation into the cause will most likely be conducted by investigators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
“They’re the federal government’s technical capability in terms of doing an investigation, finding out why the building collapsed and coming up with recommendations for the future,” he said.
The investigation will likely examine at the building’s apparent shifting or settling, as well as probable undermining elements such as the opening of a sinkhole, utility water, or even sea water sneaking in.
The NIST confirmed to Fox News that it is prepared to deploy a team of six scientists and engineers to Miami. However, the team will not enter the site until the search-and-rescue mission is completed and the location has been declared safe.
“If a full investigation or study is conducted, its ultimate goal would be to determine the technical cause of the collapse and, if indicated, to recommend changes to building codes, standards and practices, or other appropriate actions to improve the structural safety of buildings,” stated Jennifer Huergo, the agency’s acting director of public affairs.
According to Corbett, the former NCST adviser, the rescue attempt is expected to last at least overnight and possibly all weekend, as long as first responders believe there are still survivors.
“I see how family members are getting really upset that the pace of the rescue is not going as fast as they’d like, and that’s understandable,” he said. “But the fact is, you’ve got a lot of issues going on in terms of safety protocols…not only for the rescuers, but for the people that may be trapped inside.”
Bulldozers and cranes may help shift rubble, but this would increase the risk of death for survivors, he said.
Some experts believe people have been known to survive for weeks in such situations.
People can survive in areas created amid the wreckage with access to oxygen and possibly rainwater, according to Dr. Mike Cirgliano, an internist with Penn Medicine and medical contributor for “Good Day Philadelphia.”
To examine the accident site for potential survivors, the search-and-rescue workers employ various tools, including sniffer dogs and cranes. Other group members are tunneling from below, using saws and jackhammers to locate pockets in the rubble.
“This is the risk that we take: it’s the risk vs. benefit,” Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said. “Every time that we have that belief that there’s hope with personnel that are trapped, we do risk our lives.”