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In collapsed condo building’s twin tower, an agonizing choice: Stay put or get out?

A law enforcement vehicle sits on the sand near a condo tower
The sister building of the Miami-area condo tower that partially collapsed Thursday sits about a block away.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

About a block from the Miami-area beachfront condo tower that collapsed sits its sister building, erected a year later by the same company, using the same materials and a similar design. It has faced the same tides and salty air.

This has made some residents of Champlain Towers North worried enough to leave, though many have remained, saying they are confident that their almost-40-year-old, 12-story building is better-maintained. They say their building doesn’t have the same problems with cracking in support beams and in the pool area that engineering reports in 2018 showed the south tower had.

The collapse of Champlain Towers South in the town of Surfside on Thursday has drawn attention to older high-rise buildings throughout South Florida and prompted Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava to order a 30-day audit of whether such buildings under her jurisdiction are complying with a required recertification of structural integrity at 40 years. She said she wants any issues raised by inspections to be immediately addressed.

She’s also urged municipalities within the county to follow suit. Miami, for example, has launched a 45-day audit of buildings six stories or higher that are 40 years old and older.

Inspectors performed a quick examination of the north building, and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said nothing was found that indicates the tower is in danger of collapse.

That didn’t reassure everyone.

From sinkholes to concrete-weakening saltwater intrusion, theories abound on what caused a Florida beachside condo tower to collapse with no warning.

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“I’m petrified of returning,” said Rebecca Weinstock, a snowbird who bought a sixth-floor condo in the north building four years ago with her husband. She is in New York, where she was when the south tower collapsed early Thursday, killing at least 11 people and leaving 150 missing.

While she agrees that the north building is well maintained, she said that wasn’t enough to satisfy her that it was completely safe. It was completed in 1982, one year after the south tower, and built by the same developer, Nathan Reiber, through his firm, Nattel Construction. The possibility that the collapse was caused by a design or construction flaw means she won’t be returning anytime soon.

“I am out my investment, I am out my apartment, I am out my future, but we are talking about lives here,” she said. The only way she’ll return, she said, is if two independent engineers — not from South Florida — agree that it’s safe.

North tower residents who want to temporarily relocate are being offered private assistance from Support Surfside, a charity group helping victims of the collapse. The group did a survey of the building’s full-time residents and found about half are staying and half have left. Overall, about half the units are owned by snowbirds like Weinstock and those residents left before the collapse, the group’s survey showed. Overall, 28 of the 113 units are currently occupied, the group found.

In the weeks and months ahead, even grimmer moments will follow. And answers about the Surfside tower collapse could take years, if they come at all.

Most residents who are staying took the position of Philip and Nora Zyne, who remain in their fifth-floor condo. The Zynes bought their condo 12 years ago, and have lived there full time for six. They have several friends and acquaintances who lived in the south tower and remain missing.

Zyne said Monday that he’s seen numerous inspectors in his building since the collapse.

“I’ve never seen any major structural issues” in the north building, said Philip Zyne, an attorney. “I’m not worried at all right now. I do want to get a full structural engineering and forensic examination done.”

Rescuers digging through the rubble of a Florida beachfront condo tried to reassure family members they were doing as much as possible to find survivors.

Salomon Gold, who spent 10 years as the condo association president for the north tower and 20 on the board, is convinced that the building is safe, saying he and the other board members never skimped on maintenance. He compared the building collapse to airplanes: Just because one crashes doesn’t mean others of that same make and model will.

“We are in good shape,” said Gold, 89. The current condo association president, Naum Lusky, declined to comment Monday.

Burkett, the mayor, said a thorough inspection of the north tower would be conducted Tuesday by an engineering firm hired by the residents. The town will inspect other older buildings soon. Given the results of the preliminary examination of the north tower, he said he doesn’t see a reason to order an evacuation.

Still, he said, he’s not sure he would stay there himself.

“If you asked me if I wanted to spend the night in that building, I’d be a little ... I wouldn’t be willing to do that until we went through it,” he said.

Esther Drachman and her husband aren’t taking any chances. Drachman’s 91-year-old mother-in-law lives in the north tower.

“My mother-in-law is bedridden, so we took her out and brought her to our house,” Drachman said. “We just felt like we couldn’t get her out in five minutes” if a rapid evacuation became necessary.

Drachman said her mother-in-law wasn’t worried or very aware of the details of the disaster. She said she and her husband were waiting to see if a thorough inspection turned up any problems.

“We’ll see if that building’s fine,” Drachman said. “And if it is, we’ll put her back in.”


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