A renowned structural engineer hired by the city of Surfside to study the Champlain Towers South collapse that has killed at least 86 people said he is nowhere near being able to answer how the tragedy happened.
“We don’t know enough yet. This is in the infancy of this particular thing. And, all these armchair quarterbacks — both engineers and non-engineers — out there that have all these ideas about why this has happened, they don’t have any basis of fact for it,” Allyn Kilsheimer, founder and chief executive officer of KCE Structural Engineers, said in an interview Saturday.
“We’re basing everything we do on facts, and we don’t have any inkling right now on why this occurred,” he said. “Right now, I don’t know what caused it. I didn’t know what caused it the first night. I still don’t know what caused it now.”
Kilsheimer, 80, whose firm was hired by Surfside on June 27, three days after the building fell, has more than 60 years of experience investigating building disasters, including the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City and the Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse.
The former disasters had obvious triggers — the impact of a hijacked airliner and a truck bomb, respectively. But, like the FIU bridge collapse, last month’s tragedy has no immediately clear trigger, and it could take years to find one, Kilsheimer said.
“We knew that in the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, we knew those triggers. All the other buildings that we did, we didn’t know the triggers. We had to search for them,” Kilsheimer said. “Sometimes you get that one trigger, not very often. You might get to, ‘it’s either this or this,’ and we can’t separate it out, which one of it it is.”
Kilsheimer is using an identically designed building next to Champlain Towers South — Champlain Towers North — as a model to hopefully see what caused the collapse. His team is in the process of conducting internal and external scans of the north building, including electronic surveys that can look through concrete supports to see if there is weakness there.
So far, he hasn’t seen anything that caused alarm, and certainly nothing that would suggest the building is not safe.
“We explain to the north building people every day when they ask us if we should get out of this building, is it safe. What I tell them is that, I would let my kids and grandkids stay in this building,” Kilsheimer said. “And, if I find something that would not let me do that, the first thing I would do is tell you, you have to get out of here. We have not found anything that concerns me at all on the exposed and visible conditions or on the testing we’ve done so far.”
But, Kilsheimer said he has yet to access the debris of the Champlain Towers South building so he can conduct materials testing. He does not yet know if the buildings, which were both constructed in 1981, are made from the same materials, even though they are identical in design.
The 1979 design plans for the north building called for its foundation to be built with precast concrete pilings. The plans for the south tower gave the option of either precast concrete piles or pressure-injected footings. Kilsheimer doesn’t know which one the builder ended up using.
“They’re different,” he said. “When I get in there and dig open holes, I can tell you.”