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NIST to Investigate Causes of Miami Building Collapse

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The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has investigated disasters such as the Twin Towers in New York, announced Wednesday that forensic engineering experts will investigate the causes of the collapse of the residential building that killed 98 people in Surfside, Florida, last June.

“In response to the tragic events at Champlain Towers South, a team of experts has answered the call to help us determine the probable cause or causes of the partial collapse” of the building, James Olthoff, director of NIST, the federal agency in charge of the investigation, told a news conference.

The team, which will be headed by Cuban-American engineer Judith Mitrani-Reise, will clarify the origin of the collapse of a wing of the apartment building in the early hours of June 24, while its occupants were asleep.

Among the victims were elderly people who had decided to retire in this tower of more than 130 apartments, as well as minors, young people, adults and families, all of different nationalities, but especially from Latin America.

The goal of the survey is “to understand what happened at Surfside and to make recommendations that will serve to improve the safety of buildings throughout the United States and ensure that a tragedy like this does not happen again,” Olthoff said.

Mitrani-Reiser, currently associate chief of NIST’s Structural Materials and Systems Division, nuanced that the task force, with “incredible forensic engineering expertise,” will look at all hypotheses that could explain what caused the collapse.

“We are going to approach this with an open mind and examine all the hypotheses that could explain what caused this collapse,” said the Cuban-born engineer, who came to Miami as a child.

She added that the team will include experts in structural and geotechnical engineering, materials and evidence collection, among other disciplines, according to the Miami Herald.

At the press conference, NIST officials said their first priority was to work with local authorities to ensure that any evidence collected at the collapse site was preserved, and confirmed that hundreds of pieces of debris have been preserved and analyzed.

In a statement released Wednesday, NIST, which is based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said the technical investigation will analyze the complete history of the building, from design plans, construction and materials to modifications, site and environment.

Likewise, the mayor of Miami-Dade, Daniella Levine Cava, has promised to get “to the bottom” of the investigation to determine the causes of this tragedy.

Experts have pointed out that the investigation will be long and complex and that it will probably conclude that it was not a single cause, but a set of factors that contributed to the collapse.

In 2018 a report by an engineering firm determined that there was “significant” structural damage and cracks in different parts of the Champlain Towers South building, but previously it had been detected that the ground was sinking in that area of Surfiside, a small city located on a sleeve of land that stands between the ocean and the city of Miami and in which Miami Beach is also located.

NIST has conducted other investigations of previous catastrophes, such as the one that occurred due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001; the tornado that devastated the city of Joplin, Missouri, in 2011; and the also devastating effects of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico and part of the Caribbean in 2017.

The institution will periodically inform the public through its website and at a press conference on the progress of the investigation, but will not release any results until the final report is ready.