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'Walls Were Crumbling' At 12-Story Florida Condo Building Before Deadly Collapse

A 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, Florida, just north of Miami Beach, collapsed around 2 a.m. Thursday, killing at least one and leaving dozens more unaccounted for.

The Champlain Towers South Condo building has 130 units and was completed in 1981, according to the Miami Herald. A massive search and rescue operation is underway after the building pancaked, leaving floors reduced to rubble.

8777 Collins Ave. in Surfside, Florida, captured in January 2021.

“Everyone who is alive is out of the building," Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Herald. Neighboring buildings have been cleared too. 

The condo was beginning its 40-year recertification, and the building’s roof was being redone. It is still unclear what caused the collapse, and the identity of the building's developer couldn't be immediately determined.

The condominium association for the building was sued in 2015 for failing to properly maintain outside walls and common areas. In 2014, resident Matilde Fainstein, aka Matilde Zeidenweber, alleged that water leaked in through cracks in the outside wall of the building, damaging her unit. She had had previously sued over the same issue and settled both times. Third-party defendants included Tong LE and Western Waterproofing of America.

Daniel Wagner, an attorney who represented Fainstein in her more recent case, said that she and her family were not at the condo overnight and are safe.

He said he would be representing her and other unit owners to seek damages from the condo collapse, adding that he would look at potential liability by the association and every company or contractor that did work on the building in the past five years.  

"[The association's] insurance company is going to look at every single possible pocket that they can go after and to be indemnified," Wagner told Bisnow Thursday. 

Wagner said he could not discuss specifics because of the settlement his client reached with the management association but said the building had widespread issues. It was developed starting in 1979 by Champlain Towers South Associates, which bought the land from the city of Surfside for $200K, the Herald reported Thursday

"There was some serious disrepair in the building," Wagner said. "It wasn't just her unit. Walls were crumbling, stuff like that. My client notified the management recently of a column that was collapsing.

"The problem, in my opinion, with condo associations across the board and [homeowners associations] is that people want to keep their maintenance fees low," he continued. "They would rather forgo repairs and instead take the risk. All that does is pass along the buck [to the] next generation of unit owners."

Peter Dyga, the president of the Florida East Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, told the Miami Herald the collapse was "an oddity of biblical proportions."

“People have to remember, there are thousands of buildings of this height or taller in South Florida, millions worldwide. ... This does not happen. Clearly, something was wrong,” Dyga told the Herald. “We need to find what happened and make sure if there was any kind of negligence, we hold people accountable."

Wagner said he is aware of numerous other Miami-area condos that are unsafe because of neglected maintenance. Miami Beach and parts of South Florida sit atop porous limestone, which has been a source of concern amid the area's ongoing climate resiliency efforts

Wagner predicted that the South Florida condo lifestyle would still be attractive but said the collapse should prompt buyers to be more proactive in looking at condo declarations, association rules, past inspections and maintenance records before purchasing units. He said South Florida condos should have intensive inspections every 10 years instead of every 40 years because of weather and hurricanes. 

Surfside is a hot spot for real estate development. High-end projects include Arte Surfside, where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner live. Listings for units at Champlain Towers South show they were selling for $600K and up.