SURFSIDE, FLA. (WSVN) - We are now learning that there were owners and residents who had shown concerns about the state of the Champlain Towers South Condo building before its collapse.
They were alarmed by cracks they noticed and water damage they said was visible.
Among those rescue crews are searching for is Elena Chavez Blasser.
Her son Pablo Rodriguez said she often would complain about issues in the building, and he witnessed them, too.
“There would be water in the garage,” he said. “There would be cracks around the pool deck. There would be straight cracks in the building.”
The Miami Herald has obtained photos from a contractor who said he saw damage and standing water in the garage two days before the collapse.
“Saw a bunch of standing water and then entered the pool equipment room, where he saw cracks in the concrete,” Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey said. “Everything that we’ve just described, rebar, degraded concrete and thought, ‘Wow, why haven’t they maintained this building better?'”
The 7 Investigates Team also found a lawsuit from 2015.
A unit owner filed suit against the Champlain South Condo Board because she said, “Water entered into the property through the cracks in the outside wall of the building.”
She also alleged the condo board “failed to maintain the common elements and the outside walls of the building.”
That lawsuit was later dismissed.
Three years later, in 2018, an engineering report on the building from Morabito Consulting was released.
It noted abundant cracking and concrete slabs that needed to be replaced because they were showing signs of distress.
The report was sent by a board member to Ross Prieto. At the time, Prieto was working in Surfside’s Building Department.
A month after the report, Prieto attended a Champlain South Board Meeting.
In an email afterwards, he wrote: “The response was very positive from everyone in the room. All main concerns over their forty year recertification process were addressed.”
Champlain South Unit Owner Susana Alvarez told NPR she attended a 2018 board meeting along with town officials.
“I want you to know that in 2018 we had a board meeting, and we sat there with the town of Surfside, and the town of Surfside said to us that the building was not in bad shape, that this building was not in bad shape,” she said.
Now, Alvarez wants to know what actually happened.
“I want answers,” she said. “I want answers. I want major answers. That was my home.”
Architect William Hamilton Arthur said while Prieto led Surfside’s building department, repair and renovation work would sometimes be pushed back because documents were not always timely viewed and approved.
When asked if Prieto was often unresponsive to documents he would submit, Arthur said, “Yeah, it’s just not unresponsive. I would say there was a culture of complacency in that building department. Documents would be submitted up front at the front desk. We would hope that Ross would review it or make some type of determination, and often not, we waited several weeks before that was provided.”
Arthur said since new management took over the building department in 2020, the department’s operations are much smoother and more responsive.
The 7 Investigates Team went to Ross Prieto’s home and repeatedly called him to get his side of the story — but no luck. 7News has also sent several text messages to Prieto to seek comment, and he has read the messages but has not yet responded.
Structural engineer Jason Borden said he looked at the Champlain South Tower in 2020.
He said he spotted no signs the building was at risk of collapsing.
“I saw deterioration of the concrete balconies. I saw cracks and deterioration of the garage and plaza level, but those were all things that we’re accustomed to seeing,” he said.
In April 2021, a 16-page letter was sent to condo owners in the building. In the letter, the condo board president warned of “accelerated problems” in the building, including accelerating problems with the integrity of some of the building’s concrete. The letter also detailed why the building needed more than $16 million worth of work.
She wrote, “The garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection,” and “The concrete deterioration is accelerating. The roof situation got much worse.”
“When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface,” she added.
Near the end of the letter, the condo president wrote, “A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by, but this is where we are now.”
Concrete and contracting experts said just by looking at the collapse site, they cannot tell yet what went wrong.
“With some structural deficiencies, it’s very hard to tell in those pictures if there was any evidence of that,” said Yaniv Levi with Coast to Coast General Contractors.
The engineering firm who authorized the report told 7News: “Our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and public.”
In the meantime, a field team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology is on the ground and has started a preliminary investigation that may turn into a multi-year investigation to pinpoint the cause of the collapse.
“It’s important that we do it right, that we do it systematically, and we are going to work until we get the right answer,” said Jason Averill with NIST.
At the same time, the condo board has launched its own investigation.
“The board is already in the process of hiring an engineer to also try to figure out what happened, and they will be evaluating who is responsible,” condo board attorney Donna Berger said.
On Monday, the 7 Investigates Team learned Prieto is now working for a private company called CAP Government, Inc. and through this corporation, he was working inside the building department at the City of Doral.
7 Investigates has also learned Prieto has connections to a 1997 building collapse in Miami Shores that killed two people. He was working for the city when a contractor hired an unlicensed contractor who gutted the inside of the building.
When pressed on whether contractors can hire unlicensed subcontractors, Prieto said, “No, they can’t.”
The City of Doral released a statement by the afternoon reading: “On June 28th, 2021, CAP Government, Inc. notified the City of Doral that Mr. Prieto was on a leave of absence and assigned another employee to assist the City of Doral’s Building Department on a temporary basis.”
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