Surfside building collapse: Agency that studied fall of Twin Towers during 9/11 begins investigations

By Aaron Leibowitz, Sarah Blaskey, Linda Robertson, and Jay Weaver

Surfside, Florida - A team of scientists and engineers from an obscure federal agency that investigated the fall of the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attacks arrived on Friday at the site of the partially collapsed residential tower in Surfside.

Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team work in the rubble of the partially collapsed 12-story condo building in Surfside, Florida.
Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team work in the rubble of the partially collapsed 12-story condo building in Surfside, Florida.  © IMAGO / Agencia EFE

Their goal: to decide whether to launch a full investigation into the catastrophe, and then to begin the painstaking process of determining what went wrong.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a little-known sub-agency of the Department of Commerce, investigates disasters that result in – or had the potential to result in – "substantial loss of life," according to spokesperson Jennifer Huergo. It does so with an eye toward recommending changes to building codes, standards and practices that will ensure that similar disasters never happen again.

Thursday’s tragedy at the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside – which left at least five people dead and more than 150 unaccounted for as of Saturday – would appear to land directly in the agency’s wheelhouse. A federal law passed in the aftermath of 9/11, known as the National Construction Safety Team Act, gave NIST the authority to investigate major building failures.

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Any investigation by NIST, by private forensic engineers or by both will follow a similar progression, said Abieyuwa Aghayere, a professor of forensic engineering at Drexel University and an expert in structural steel design and reinforced concrete like what was used to build the Champlain Tower.

"They will come up with possible failure hypotheses for this type of failure," Aghayere said. "At first, they won’t rule anything out. They will put everything out on the table."

Investigating an unprecedented catastrophe

The ruins of an apartment after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South.
The ruins of an apartment after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Investigators will then collect evidence: original drawings, debris, soil borings, pictures of the collapse and interviews with residents, building managers, and anyone else who may have noticed something. They will use it to determine which of their hypotheses could be a cause of catastrophic collapse.

Miami engineer John Pistorino said complex investigations, like those involving plane crashes, often involve a painstaking partial reconstruction to pinpoint flaws and determine what went wrong.

There is nothing "likely" about what appeared to be a spontaneous collapse of half a residential tower, a catastrophe so rare it’s difficult to find an equivalent in modern history.

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Federal officials will gather any relevant information and materials at the site over the next few days, such as samples of concrete and steel from the building, before deciding whether to formally investigate.

"The NIST experts will work with federal, state and local authorities to identify and preserve materials that might be helpful in understanding why the collapse occurred," said Huergo, the NIST spokesperson.

The agency’s approach is modeled after that of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation-related accidents, such as the collapse of the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in 2018 that resulted in six deaths.

A fire deep inside the collapsed Champlain Towers hampered rescue efforts Saturday morning, creating a gray haze and filling the air with the smell of smoke.
A fire deep inside the collapsed Champlain Towers hampered rescue efforts Saturday morning, creating a gray haze and filling the air with the smell of smoke.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Press

Another federal agency that investigated the FIU bridge collapse – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which focuses on workplace issues – was also in Surfside Friday gathering information on the collapse and deciding whether it qualifies as an OSHA case.

The investigation process can take years to complete.

"We’ll do it as long as it takes," said Huergo, noting that 200 people were involved in the NIST investigation of the World Trade Center attacks. "It’s very early days."

Cover photo: IMAGO / Agencia EFE

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