Surfside mayor: Why did Miami-Dade delay hiring engineer for probe of condo collapse?

·6 min read

More than a month after the Champlain Towers South fell, Miami-Dade County police are advertising for an engineer to study the Surfside condominium collapse.

Surfside’s mayor has a question: What took so long?

In the latest escalation of the town’s rift with Miami-Dade over access to the site of the June 24 condo collapse, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett is calling it “inexplicable” that the county is still looking for a structural expert while denying Surfside’s hired engineer the ability to study building materials and soil from Champlain Towers South.

“Why the county would be searching for a structural engineer consultant at this late date, especially given that we’ve had the best available, onsite and ready to work since day one, is inexplicable,” Burkett wrote in a Wednesday email to Allyn Kilsheimer, the New York engineer on retainer with Surfside to review building safety in the town and determine what caused the Champlain South collapse.

The Miami Herald obtained the email through a records request to Surfside.

The email lays out in writing Burkett’s increasingly public criticism of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s administration for refusing Kilsheimer’s request for access to the collapse site. County representatives insist the site must remain closed as two investigations — one by county police, and one by the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology, which probed the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center — continue.

On Thursday, the court-appointed receiver running the Champlain Towers South condo association sided with Miami-Dade and instructed county police not to allow Surfside on the property.

“This shall confirm our conversation that no other person, entity or party other than NIST and those necessary for the County to perform its criminal investigation should be given access to the Real Property while it is under the County’s control,” Michael Goldberg, a Miami lawyer, wrote to Major Jorge Aguiar, head of the county’s homicide bureau. “This specifically includes, but is not limited to, the Town of Surfside and its employees and experts.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava speaks to the media about the collapsed Champlain Towers South recovery mission in Surfside, Florida, on Monday, July 12, 2021.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava speaks to the media about the collapsed Champlain Towers South recovery mission in Surfside, Florida, on Monday, July 12, 2021.

Another factor is litigation, with Miami-Dade officially privately saying it would be inappropriate to give Surfside early access to a site to conduct studies the town could use in its defense in a lawsuit over the collapse. Burkett says Miami-Dade officials have said they expect the town to be a defendant in a suit since the head of Surfside’s Building Department was quoted as telling Champlain South residents the tower was in “very good shape” in 2018.

In his letter, Goldberg said he expects Miami-Dade will give up control of the current designated “crime scene” in a few weeks, when the court would allow “parties of interest” limited access to the site.

While Kilsheimer has been on the job since June, the Miami-Dade Police Department has only begun seeking its own engineer for the investigation. In his email, Burkett sent Kilsheimer a posting by Miami-Dade police for forensic engineering services to study the Surfside collapse. The consultant will be assigned to a “field inspection of the failed structure” and “provide MDPD with an Engineering Forensic Investigation Report on the causes of the structural failure.”

The posting, with responses due by Friday, is the first definitive sign that Miami-Dade intends to conduct its own engineering analysis of the collapse, rather than waiting for the NIST findings. The federal agency said its Surfside probe could take three years before final results are released, a timeline that’s been part of Burkett’s complaints about Surfside’s inquiry being delayed.

Surfside officials tour site without engineer

Burkett visited the site himself Thursday, along with the town manager and attorney, after requesting access from the county in a phone call earlier on Thursday with Levine Cava and Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez.

He said he was concerned that he didn’t see any workers inspecting the property while Kilsheimer has been in town for over a month eager to begin his work. The county “explicitly” said Kilsheimer was not allowed on the site, Burkett said.

“We have one of the best [engineers] on the planet for this type of work in place since Day One but for some inexplicable reason he has been prevented from accessing the site,” Burkett told the Herald.

A photo posted July 20 on Twitter by Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, shows the Champlain Towers South site cleared of all rubble from the tower’s collapse.
A photo posted July 20 on Twitter by Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, shows the Champlain Towers South site cleared of all rubble from the tower’s collapse.

Miami-Dade stopped site work shortly after Kilsheimer sent a letter to the county warning of a potential collapse of underground walls around the Champlain South foundation. He recommended shoring up the walls to avoid the risk of nearby Collins Avenue collapsing. Miami-Dade agreed to the work, said Miami-Dade communications director Rachel Johnson, and the shoring isn’t completed yet.

While they appeared together without public friction during twice-daily briefings near the Surfside collapse, Burkett has become a top critic of Levine Cava after the county declined Surfside’s demands for site access.

“The mayor performed magnificently up to this point but I’m concerned that there’s a loss of focus right now,” Burkett said. “There seems to be a real lack of urgency that has developed.”

Burkett said he has offered Kilsheimer’s services to the county because the process of hiring a new engineer could delay the investigation.

Kilsheimer’s firm, KCE Structural Engineers, conducted emergency rescue and recovery work at the Pentagon after the 2001 terrorist attack and, locally, investigated the 2012 collapse of a Miami Dade College parking garage that killed four people and assisted efforts after the 2018 Florida International University bridge collapse that killed six.

“My hope is the county will reconsider its position on Mr. Kilsheimer or find someone that’s as qualified as he is to immediately begin working,” Burkett said. “My fear is that the process of locating, vetting, hiring and getting someone up to speed could add weeks and maybe months to the whole process.”

Burkett said the town’s investigation of Champlain South’s soil conditions is essential to confirm the safety of a condo complex two buildings away called Champlain Towers North. It was built in 1981 by the same developer, but the town has not ordered residents out and Kilsheimer said there is no reason to believe the building is in danger.

“Lives are potentially at stake, even though the odds are low that Champlain North or any other building could collapse, we politicians are not in a position to gamble with peoples lives,” he said. “That’s a bet we absolutely cannot make, which is why we must immediately put our engineer to work. He should have been working weeks ago.”

Asked to respond to Burkett’s critique of the county’s timing for hiring a forensic engineer, Lt. Carlos Rosario, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade police, said: “The investigation is moving forward and this is part of the ongoing process.”

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