Video shows cracks, puddles in condo garage a year before it collapsed — but no red flag

·6 min read

On July 17 last year, Fiorella Terenzi, an astrophysicist who has a condo in Champlain Towers East, went to the sister building Champlain Towers South to check out an apartment on the sixth floor, with an eye toward buying the unit. She had wanted to live in the South building, and waited eagerly for a unit to come available. Then she saw the parking garage.

“The garage was the no-go,” Terenzi told the Miami Herald. Terenzi has lived in South Florida off and on since 2000 and said she has seen other wet garages, but this one was worse than normal. Though she had other concerns, the garage, which she later called “a nightmare,” was the ultimate reason she didn’t buy in the building, she said.

There in the garage, Terenzi noticed corrosion and paint peeling on the ceiling, along with several puddles of standing water. It was the same garage that was inspected in August 2018 by engineer Frank Morabito. At the time, Morabito, an engineering consultant hired by the condo board, noted “major structural damage” to the concrete slab that makes up the ceiling of the garage and the underside of the pool deck, putting the association on notice that expensive repairs were called for as the building’s 40-year recertification approached.

A large portion of the building collapsed two weeks ago, leaving 60 confirmed dead and dozens more presumed buried in the rubble.

What Terenzi saw nearly two years after Morabito’s inspection later was memorialized in a video, which the Florida International University professor said she reviewed frame-by-frame once she got home. On the ceiling — which is the structural slab supporting the first floor of the building and the pool deck — she noticed a crack she described as “pretty wide,” which had been repaired and painted over.

“There is some water over there next to the crack. There is a calcification stalactite,” Terenzi told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “... All of that was a big concern. I reviewed the video many, many times, but I didn’t go for the unit.”

While the condition of the garage last year was enough to spook a potential buyer, four engineers who reviewed the video for the Herald said they didn’t see any obvious red flags — certainly no signs that the building would tumble down less than 12 months later.

The path potential-condo-buyer Fiorella Terenzi took as she recorded a video of Champlain Towers South basement-level garage less than a year before the building collapsed.
The path potential-condo-buyer Fiorella Terenzi took as she recorded a video of Champlain Towers South basement-level garage less than a year before the building collapsed.

“Reviewing the video, there are very obvious signs of above-average deterioration of the structure,” said Greg Batista, a South Florida engineer who works on old buildings.

“As an engineer that has inspected hundreds of structures with varying levels of spalling and deterioration, I can understand how those in charge didn’t sound the “life-or-death” alarm on the seriousness of the issue at hand,” he said. (Spalling refers to cracks in concrete.)

Although some roughness was visible on the ceiling under the half of the building that collapsed on June 24, the largest slab crack visible in Terenzi’s video was under the part of the building that remained standing.

Husam Najm, a structural engineer and Rutgers University professor who specializes in concrete, noted the relatively good condition of the columns. The concrete slab showing corrosion is a concern, Najm said, but there are no exposed steel bars, which would be the major red flag to look for.

“Usually you get real concerned when you see the steel exposed,” he said.

Najm added that the video doesn’t appear to show the widespread discoloration on the ceiling of the parking garage to the same degree it is seen near the corroded slab.

“There’s a beginning, and there are signs, but it doesn’t appear to be that extensive,” he said.

Roughness visible on the ceiling of the garage directly beneath the pool deck shown in 2020 video. Experts are unclear on the cause.
Roughness visible on the ceiling of the garage directly beneath the pool deck shown in 2020 video. Experts are unclear on the cause.

In October 2018, Morabito wrote that the damage to the slab was due to an error dating back to the building’s original construction in which the pool deck was built without slope, allowing for standing water and the failure of drainage and waterproofing systems to protect the slab below. He also noted that previous repairs to the parking garage were “failing, resulting in additional concrete cracking, spalling and leaching of calcium carbonate deposits.”

Batista and other experts said it’s unclear from Terenzi’s video whether the rough patches in the ceiling of the garage are relics of poor epoxy repair jobs or calcium carbonate deposits — evidence of serious and potentially damaging water intrusion in a critical structural element of the building.

While she didn’t see any evidence of corrosion in the video, Dawn Lehman, professor of engineering at the University of Washington, said there was evidence of water intrusion.

“There is evidence of ‘puddles’ of standing water around the columns. However, most importantly, there is peeling and bubbling of the paint on the ceiling of the garage — which is the pool-deck slab,” Lehman said. “If the paint bubbles held water against the bottom of the pool-deck slab and the concrete cover on the bottom reinforcement was smaller than currently required, it is likely that there was degradation of the concrete and corrosion of the steel.”

Lehman said an inspecting engineer would need to excavate the concrete in order to know the extent of the damage.

“The columns and slab look pretty good and no sign of major damage or delamination,” said Mohammad Ehsani, engineer and inventor of QuakeWrap technology, which is used to reinforce old concrete structures. But Ehsani said the image wasn’t of high enough quality to be sure. What he did notice was the water.

“There are several places where there is a puddle of water on the floor in the mid-section of the garage,” he wrote to the Herald in a text. “How did they get there?! They don’t seem to be near any drains.”

Puddle under a column supporting the Champlain Towers South pool deck, shown in July 2020 video.
Puddle under a column supporting the Champlain Towers South pool deck, shown in July 2020 video.

Two days prior to the building collapse, a pool contractor noted deep standing water in a similar location as one of the largest puddles visible in the 2020 video. The contractor also documented significant corrosion to a beam around the pool, although the damage he photographed was not in the area of the building that collapsed.

The 2020 video also shows a large crack in the concrete floor of the basement-level garage but experts said that was likely not something that should be a major cause for concern. The crack was unlikely to have contributed to the progressive collapse of the whole north side of the structure, which began after what experts described as slab failure in the garage ceiling visible in a video taken moments before the building collapsed.

“This slab is laying on top of the dirt,” Batista explained. “So an engineer, walking through [the basement garage], is more concerned with any cracks or spalling that are at the floor level and above, not really anything that is at the floor level and below.”