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The Feds Are Already Looking Into Surfside Collapse. What Should We Expect From Them?

Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. The seaside condominium tower collapsed on Thursday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. The seaside condominium tower collapsed on Thursday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology was given the authority to investigate building collapses after the attacks of 9/11. Now, six researchers are in Surfside gathering information about Thursday's partial building collapse.

A team of six scientists and engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology have been dispatched to Surfside to begin investigating the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building, which has officially left four dead and more than 150 people still unaccounted for.

The federal agency was given the authority to investigate building collapses after the attacks of 9/11.

"Our process is a two-step process," said Jason Averill, chief of the Materials and Structural Systems Division of the engineering laboratory at the agency.

The first step includes what is called a "preliminary reconnaissance" mission, which is the stage the agency is in now.

"We are going to begin to connect into that incident command system and we're going to begin to assess what kind of evidence, in other words, what kinds of pieces of perhaps building or other information might we want to begin collecting and preserving" said Averill. "Because we know following a disaster, some of the most important pieces of evidence that might point to what happened can disappear if we're not down there quickly to ensure that it's preserved and can become part of the investigative record."

"We're going to want to take photographs. We're going to want to talk to people who have been on the scene and on the site. If there is any video or photographic evidence, we'll want to look at that so that we can begin to form that initial understanding of what an investigation of this incident might reveal," he added.

In particular, investigators will be looking for clues as to whether the preliminary findings suggest problems that could reveal more general, systemic issues in building safety.

In other words, are there many other buildings of this design? Are there materials issues that are common to many other buildings?” he said. “These might potentially down the road lead to recommendations for changes and improvements to building codes and standards to ensure that failures like this don't happen again.”

Part of the congressional mandate for giving the agency the authority to investigate building collapses is to press for changes in local building codes based on investigative findings. The agency boasts that it successfully pushed for 40 changes to building codes after the attacks on 9/11 and won changes to sprinkler and record keeping codes after a deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003.

NIST scientists have conducted multiple large-scale investigations into building collapses and structural failures across the nation, although few single-building collapses on the scale of the Champlain Towers South condo tragedy in Surfside. NIST scientists are currently conducting an ongoing investigation into the overall impact of 2017's Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.

Within the next few weeks, investigators will decide what the next course of action NIST should take in the Surfside collapse. One option would be to simply do no further research on the topic, an unlikely scenario given the scale of the disaster and potential loss of life. Another course of action would be to launch a full-scale national investigation. Or the team could also decide to launch a smaller-scale “study” of the disaster, a kind of middle ground.

For studies and long-term investigations, updates and interim findings are published by the National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee, a group that advises NIST on its investigations. The updates happen every three months or so. Updates on the ongoing Hurricane Maria investigations, for example, are given through the advisory committee.

If a full investigation or study is chosen, NIST will make an announcement outlining the scope of the investigation and the particular questions that they want to answer through further study. The announcement would be less of a report on preliminary findings and more of an outline of pressing questions, based on the preliminary field research.

“We hope to have that kind of decision in the next week or two,” Averill said.

If a full investigation is undertaken, "we would expect that would take at least a couple of years," he added.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is also investigating the collapse, although on a different track. It has to do with the different congressional authorities that have been given to each agency, which do not always overlap. So in reality, it could lead to multiple investigations at the federal level, in addition to any undertaken at the local and state levels.

“The NIST authorities are to do technical investigations as to the cause of failures for buildings, and any role that evacuation systems, emergency communications and emergency response might have played in the outcome of that particular incident,” Averill said. “OSHA would be looking at workplace issues, if there was active and ongoing work on-site, as a workplace safety issue.”

If a full-scale NIST investigation is recommended by scientists and engineers the agency has working in South Florida, it could lead to a forensic audit of virtually every piece of the building infrastructure, natural conditions and human decisions that could have caused the collapse.

“How a building was designed — looking at design drawings. Looking at the code that was enforced at the time the building was designed, because they change over time,” said Averill. “We would want to look at any kinds of inspections, maintenance records, we would wanna look at any kind of photographic or video evidence, we want to understand any kind of alterations that might have occurred to the building since it was originally constructed. We’d want to take samples of construction materials to understand the contemporary state of the building materials.”

“Of course, we go into these investigations with a completely open mind, that it could be many different factors that contributed to the outcome,” he said.
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