Nine months before a massive section of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., came showering down, an engineering firm called Morabito Consultants found "severely deteriorated" concrete throughout the building, including in load-bearing structures known as corbels.
According to a document acquired by NPR from an anonymous source, the company's probe, conducted between June and October 2020, found problems that appeared even more grave than those identified in an earlier 2018 study of the condo conducted by the same company.
The Maryland-based firm, hired by the condo association's board, is widely respected in the construction industry, in part for helping save another Florida condominium from collapse a decade earlier.
A spokesman for Morabito Consultants declined to answer a detailed list of questions submitted by NPR about the company's work at the condo site.
A spokesman for the Surfside condo association board said the firm never issued a clear warning to its leadership or the residents of Champlain Towers South. Town officials said they weren't notified at all of the findings.
On June 24, the 12-story structure collapsed in a matter of seconds, leaving at least 64 people dead and 76 others believed missing in the dense debris pile.
"Exploratory demolition" found serious problems
NPR reported previously Morabito Consultants produced a troubling report in 2018 that was shared with Surfside town officials.
The later document shows the firm returned in 2020 to conduct a far more extensive inspection, using a technique known as "exploratory demolition" at five sites throughout the structure.
Engineers found evidence that part of the Surfside building's load-bearing foundation might be compromised.
"The areas of deteriorated concrete appeared to penetrate deep into wall/corbel construction," the firm said in a memo sent to the condo board in October 2020 that was included in minutes of the association's monthly meeting.
Those findings were intermingled with more routine information about the condo's cosmetic problems and with discussion of forward-looking plans to upgrade the building's parking area, lobby, recreation room and other amenities.
In its memo, the firm also acknowledged stopping short of a complete investigation because the condo's swimming pool "was to remain in service for the duration of the work."
That document identified problems throughout the building and cited repairs "needed to ensure the safety of the residents and the public."
"Morabito Consultants did their job, just as they have done for nearly four decades — providing expert structural engineering counsel and services," the company's statement said.
But the firm's spokesperson, Brett Marcy, wouldn't comment on later inspections of the condo, conducted after June 2020. He also declined to say whether the company alerted anyone that immediate action might be warranted.
"Morabito Consultants does not disclose or release its client documents," Marcy wrote in an email to NPR.
Town officials say there was no sense of urgency
Surfside town officials and a spokesperson for the condo association board told NPR no such warning was issued by the engineering firm.
"At no time did the board receive any indication that there was any risk of imminent collapse of the building or that any evacuation was necessary," said Max Marcucci, a spokesperson for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.
Surfside officials said there was no record of any "sound of alarm" from Morabito Consultants after its engineers conducted the later 2020 probe.
"There didn't seem to be any sense of urgency or an emergency," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told NPR. He indicated he was unaware of the later probe conducted by the firm in 2020.
The day before the condo collapsed, Surfside's top building official, James McGuinness, was on the structure's roof, inspecting work on an unrelated project.
Speaking at an emergency town commission meeting the day after the collapse, June 25, McGuinness said he had seen nothing alarming during his visit.
He also noted the central role played by the engineering firm as the condo underwent its 40-year safety recertification.
"It's the responsibility of the property owner to hire a professional engineer to inspect two things," McGuinness said. "The structural load-bearing components of the building and the building's electrical systems. And to make sure they're still operable, serviceable and usable, that simple."
According to Miami-Dade County officials, there are no regulations that required Morabito Consultants to share its findings immediately with government building inspectors.
But in a statement emailed to NPR, spokesperson Tere Florin with the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources said companies have a "responsibility" to alert officials if they find safety concerns.
"Licensed engineers and architects have a moral and ethical responsibility to report any life threatening or safety issues they encounter to those that can take immediate action to remove the danger," the Miami-Dade County statement said.
Condo association board also faces scrutiny
It remains unclear whether any of the structural problems identified by Morabito's team — in 2018 or after it was hired again in 2020 — contributed directly to the building's collapse.
But experts consulted by NPR said the company's findings appeared alarming enough to warrant immediate action.
Some also felt, however, that information provided by the firm to the condo board was sufficient to spur a swift response by the building's owners.
"They failed to do what a reasonably prudent condo association board would have done under similar circumstances," said Gregg Schlesinger, an attorney and contractor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who specializes in cases involving troubled buildings and construction defects.
NPR reported previously the condo association's volunteer board was split by disagreements and feuds, with many residents angered by the $15 million assessment of repair costs.
Documents acquired by NPR also suggest some in the condo's leadership were aware of the gravity of the building's problems.
The October 202o board minutes include an acknowledgment that some of the needed repair work focused on issues related to "life/health/safety."
"The main expenses by far are related to items that are not cosmetic or even seen: concrete, roof, generator room, fire wall," a November 2020 PowerPoint presentation from the condo's building manager stated.
Last week, a Miami-Dade County Circuit judge placed the Champlain Towers South condo association into receivership.
Engineering firm cooperating with investigations
Multiple investigations are now underway, including a probe by the federal agency that scrutinized the twin towers' collapse after the 9/11 attacks.
The Miami-Dade County state attorney announced Wednesday that a grand jury would also probe the disaster and make recommendations on how to avoid future building collapses.
With the search and rescue operation in Surfside now over, much of the focus has pivoted to finding out what caused the disaster and determining whether it might have been averted.
In its statement, Morabito Consultants said it is "working closely with the investigating authorities."
Meanwhile, lawsuits have already been filed against Morabito Consultants, the condo board and others.
Some public officials in Florida have also called for reforms to building codes, inspection protocols and rules governing condo associations to prevent the Surfside disaster from recurring.
"I look forward to learning the truth," Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters on Tuesday.
"We'll get to the bottom of this, we'll learn what happened, what could have been prevented and how to make sure it never happens again."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What caused the deadly Surfside condo collapse that left 64 people confirmed dead and 76 more missing? It's been two weeks, and we still have very few answers. But NPR has found that nine months before the building fell, an engineering firm inspected the structure and found troubling problems in the concrete. Town officials and the condo association say they were never warned of any danger. NPR's Brian Mann has been reporting on this and joins us now. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about the problems this engineering firm found?
MANN: So NPR reported earlier on a study prepared by a company called Morabito Consultants about this troubled building back in 2018. A separate document we acquired from an anonymous source describes a later and far more extensive probe of this building by the same firm. This went on from June through October just last year. And what they found, according to this memo, was severely deteriorated concrete, including erosion that appeared to penetrate deep into crucial load-bearing structures called corbels. And experts we've spoken to say that kind of erosion is alarming.
SHAPIRO: You've reported that engineers shared that earlier 2018 report with town officials. Did they alert the town of Surfside to these findings?
MANN: Town officials told NPR they never heard about this later investigation, and they also say at no time after 2018 did Morabito Consultants alert building inspectors that there were public safety issues or structural problems that might be dangerous to residents. I asked Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett about this.
CHARLES BURKETT: There didn't seem to be any sense of urgency or emergency.
MANN: And a spokesperson for the condo association board, Max Marcucci, said residents, too, were never warned by Morabito Consultants.
MAX MARCUCCI: At no time did the board ever receive any indication that there was any risk of imminent collapse to the building or that any evacuation was necessary.
MANN: What NPR found is that Morabito's team of engineers did report finding these serious problems. They reported that to the condo association. But those details were often mingled with more routine discussions of cosmetic problems, plans for upgrading the building's lobby and recreation area and parking. So what we didn't find in this memo or in other documents from last year was any statement that these were urgent issues.
SHAPIRO: How has this firm, Morabito Consultants, responded?
MANN: A spokesperson for the firm declined to answer a list of detailed questions sent by NPR, nor would he talk at all about that 2020 probe of the building. Instead, Morabito sent a prepared statement referring again to that earlier 2018 investigation, which did include language about repairs needing to be done - and I'm quoting here, Ari - "to ensure the safety of the residents and the public." Now, one interesting thing about this firm is that they built their reputation in part by helping save another Florida condo that was at risk of collapse 10 years ago. In their statement, Morabito said on this project, too, they acted responsibly, and they're now cooperating with investigations.
SHAPIRO: Is it clear that these findings are directly related to the building's collapse?
MANN: No, and the experts we've spoken to say it will take months to identify the chain of events that produced such a catastrophic building failure. And it's also important to say that some experts we spoke to believe these engineers did provide enough information, that the condo board should have acted faster. Greg Schlesinger is a Florida contractor and attorney who specializes in cases involving construction and building problems.
GREG SCHLESINGER: They failed to do what a reasonably prudent condo association board would have done under similar circumstances. That's the legal standard. They failed to do it. They failed.
MANN: And NPR did acquire some memos where the condo's leadership seemed aware of the gravity of the building's problems. But, again, Morabito Consultants - they were the experts who studied this building over a long period of time. So as these investigations go forward now, Ari, it's going to be important to learn exactly what this company saw before the condo collapsed and what it did with that information.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Brian Mann, who's in Miami Beach as part of our team reporting on the Surfside condo collapse. Thank you, Brian.
MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.