Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker audio

A tragedy in Miami

A tragedy in Miami

As 28 people are confirmed dead and 117 are still missing in the rubble, America is asking: what went wrong at Miami’s Champlain Towers?


Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

12 days ago, in the middle of the night, a block of apartments collapsed in Surfside, Florida. 

“This is a major catastrophe that happened around 1.20 this morning.” 

WPLG Local 10 News Report

“Just absolute destruction of this building. You can see where it collapsed several floors – it looks like about four levels of that corner unit are just completely destroyed. We’re seeing a lot of rubble. Those balconies are gone.” 

WPLG Local 10 News Report

The scenes at Champlain Towers South were catastrophic – half of the building had been reduced to rubble. 

Twelve floors of concrete.

Some of the residents who lived in the building’s 136 apartments escaped by sheer luck. 

But many were not so fortunate. 

So far 28 people have been confirmed dead and 117 people are missing. 

Only 2 people have been pulled out of the wreckage alive – and only one of them survived. 

As the days go by, there’s one question that everyone is asking: how did this happen at Champlain Towers? 

***

88-year-old Esther Gorfinkel had lived at Champlain Towers South for almost as long as it had been standing: 40 years. 

“All of a sudden I hear a boom, and my bed shake and my apartment is shaking.”

Esther Gorfinkel, CNN

On the night of the collapse, she was one of the lucky ones. 

In her nightdress and slippers, she headed out from her 5th floor apartment. 

Other residents helped her. One carried her down flight after flight of stairs. 

Another helped her out of the basement parking garage, which was filled with rubble and water. 

“They pushed me out, and we got into water and in front of me was a lot of debris. And we saw a hole. He picked me up, carried me on his back outside. I saw the sky and I knew I would be out.”

Esther Gorfinkel, WPLG Local 10 News Report

Esther Gorfinkel’s survival is a story of sheer chance and good luck.  

But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the collapse of the building she called home was not a chance thing. 

***

“There’s something very very wrong here at this property. And that 2018 report talks about issues that were raised at that time and we’re going to be looking very very comprehensively at that report and other documentation that the town may have.”

Charles Burkett

That’s the mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett. He’s determined to investigate what happened at Champlain Towers South. 

And documents are beginning to reveal the story of what might have gone wrong. 

One of them is a 2018 report commissioned by the condo association, the community of homeowners.

The building was coming up to a 40-year deadline for “recertification” – basically, they needed to prove that the complex was still safe to live in. 

So the condo association hired an engineering firm to inspect the tower – and what the consultants found wasn’t good. 

“An alarming 2018 inspection report warned of abundant cracking in concrete columns and several instances of deteriorating rebar.” 

CNN News Report

There were major issues with waterproofing and drainage.

And down in the basement parking garage there were signs of degradation in the concrete.

The engineers said that repairs were needed to “maintain the structural integrity” of the building.

And the bill to fix it all came to… $9 million dollars.

But concerns about the high cost meant that there were long delays in actually getting started on the repairs.

As time went by, the issues with the building got worse.

And that cost then ballooned to $15 million. 

But it looks like there were – at last – plans in the works to get the repairs going. 

The condo association had asked residents to start paying for the work. 

And the deadline to decide how they wanted to pay? That was supposed to be July 1st… just days after the building collapsed. 

The problems at Champlain Towers South were significant. 

But so far it seems that no one who had inspected the building thought that there was any imminent danger. 

We won’t know for many months – or maybe years – what actually caused the building to collapse on that night. 

Experts and engineers will have to look forensically at the remains of the structure to work out what exactly happened here. 

But for now what the collapsed building represents is an enormous loss. 

Residents like Esther Gorfinkel have lost their homes: 

“My mother’s wedding pictures, my children’s wedding pictures. Pictures from my husband I brought from Europe after the war. Everything is in there.”

Esther Gorfinkel, WPLG Local 10 News Report

And people that they cherished: 

“My heart is broken because let me tell you I had a friend on the third floor with her husband. I don’t think they are any more. And another older lady on the seventh floor – she is gone too and it’s killing me.”

Esther Gorfinkel, WPLG Local 10 News Report

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.

Book, listen, read