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Surfside investigator on uncovering the collapse’s ‘trigger’ and what earlier reports mean

There are still many questions about what happened at the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida. Earlier warnings regarding needed repair work are prompting questions about the original design and construction, and whether cost concerns eclipsed risk concerns. William Brangham discusses the matter with Allyn Kilshimer, a renowned structural and forensic engineer hired to investigate the collapse.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With the search in Surfside, Florida, growing more dire, each day seems to bring more questions.

    William Brangham speaks tonight with an engineer who's trying to get some of those answers.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    There are still so many questions about what happened at the Champlain Towers, questions about the original design and construction of the buildings, revelations about earlier warnings regarding needed repair work, and whether those were taken seriously enough, and questions over whether cost concerns eclipsed concern about risk.

    The town of Surfside has hired Allyn Kilsheimer — he's a renowned structural and forensic engineer — to investigate this tragic collapse. He and his company have investigated dozens of other structural failures, and he joins me now from Surfside.

    Allyn Kilsheimer, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, there is this enormous pile of rubble where rescuers are still trying to see if there are people inside there. And now you have to try to investigate what happened. Can you explain that process? How do you go about doing that?

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    What we do is, we collect all of the information we can find by looking at drawings, original drawings, any geotechnical information.

    We take samples of various kinds of materials and have it tested for various kinds of things that give us information about the components and the materials. And we do computer engineering models, that we model the entire building based on the original set of drawings that we have.

    And then what we're searching for is a trigger. Things like the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, you knew what the trigger was. Here, you don't know what the trigger is.

    So, then, we try to — we're looking at the design of the building, based on the drawings and the codes it was supposed to be designed to. And we look at — from the materials testing and stuff, we do look at the materials that were used and their consistency and strength and things like that.

    And then what we do is, at the beginning of this, like, last Friday night, I came up in my head with 20 things that I think might have caused something like this. And what we do is, we eliminate them one at a time as we can, but we move down the list, and we add more things to the list.

    And then, as we possibly can, we remove them from the list if we can prove it. Then, once we have the models done, we start saying, let's assume, in a hypothetical situation, that this particular material wasn't the strength it was supposed to be. So we plug in what that material strength is, and say, does that contribute to a problem or does it cause a problem?

    And we just — it's like three huge 3,000-piece puzzles that you throw up in the air, and you mix them all up with a broom, so they're all mixed up. And then you got to do — you got to put the puzzle together.

  • William Brangham:

    We have seen various reports about the building owners getting some warnings that certain things needed to be repaired that were apparently not done.

    Do those warnings and those reports give you any hint as to why might be going on here?

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    I don't think so.

    I mean, I have read — we're getting probably 300 e-mails a day with people that are giving us information and also people that have ideas of why it happened, probably more than that. So, we listen to all that and see it.

    The bottom line is, concrete cracks. It's made to crack. All concrete cracks. Things deteriorate over time, except for old people like me, right? I don't deteriorate.

    So, the…

  • William Brangham:

    Some magic you have got there.

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    Or something.

    The idea is, I don't think that all these different things that I have read — and we haven't been able to really test anything yet. I don't think that they were the necessary trigger. They might have been a contributing factor, but not the trigger.

    And that's what the big challenge will be, is to try and find that trigger, and then look at these various things that have been reported and say, gee, if this steel was rusted like this, and if this concrete was soft or whatever, how did that affect it?

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, we know Miami itself is under a lot of other stresses as well, from sea level rise and nuisance flooding. We know the whole area was built on very porous limestone.

    And then there's this tragedy. You must be hearing from building owners up and down that region, saying, do we need to worry?

    What do you — are you hearing from those people? And what are they saying?

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    Yes, we're hearing from lots of those people.

    And what they — what they really want is some assurance from somebody that they feel comfortable with in one form or another that they don't have any problems and their building is not going to fall down around them, like the one at Surfside.

    We're talking to them. We're looking at things when we can. We actually are putting together like a little list of things that we suggest they might have looked at in their particular units, if they choose to want to do so.

    And we're working with the city of Surfside on some issues that they would like to have looked at. We just — I just got finished with a meeting a few minutes ago with the vice mayor and some other building owners, where we talked about those kinds of things.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have to give sort of precedence to the search-and-rescue that is still going on.

    Do you have any general sense of how long this investigation of yours will take?

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    No, it's going to take months. And we can only do some of it right now.

    So, for the last 12 days or whatever, and probably for another two to three or four weeks, we won't be able to do parts of the things that we do, but that's leading us to other things that we would do.

    So, I — my experience is that it takes a very long time, because you're collecting information. And, sometimes, there's this little teeny thing that gets uncovered that you go, geez, that's a huge issue, and then you have to follow that path.

    So, no, it's just going to take a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Allyn Kilsheimer, thank you very much for your time.

  • Allyn Kilsheimer:

    Thank you, sir.

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