Implosion in Surfside

Features - Cover Story

CDI races against the clock, and a tropical storm, to free up search and rescue crews in Surfside, Florida.

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September 14, 2021

At approximately 1:25 a.m. on the morning of June 24, residents of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida, were awakened as the 39-year-old building suddenly started to shake. Moments later, a wing of the 12-story structure collapsed, destroying approximately 55 apartment units and leaving a colossal pile of rubble in its wake.

FEMA’s National Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) teams were immediately deployed to the site along with Miami-Dade County’s Fire and Rescue teams. What followed was a weekslong search and rescue effort to find potential survivors and recover bodies.

While such emergency efforts are perilous by nature, the condo’s partially collapsed state presented a unique risk to rescue workers since the still-standing building that remained was not only at risk of collapse itself, it also had hanging debris sticking out from its mangled structure.

To avoid these threats, search and rescue personnel were limited to working on less than half of the pile, leaving the majority of the rubble inaccessible for workers to search for survivors.

If workers were to be granted access to the rest of the pile, the still-standing structure was going to need to come down, and come down safely. Complicating matters, demolition needed to take place in such a way that the voids in the existing debris pile stacked up against the still-standing portion of the condominium wouldn’t be compromised or disturbed in the event survivors were trapped within them. Miami-Dade authorities spoke with conventional demolition contractors, who indicated at least two weeks would be needed to bring the remainder of the structure down following mobilization of equipment. The Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) determined that, under the circumstances, that time frame was far too long and decided to pursue an implosion option.

Due to the precarious nature of the project and uncertain condition of the structure, finding a seasoned implosion specialist with an understanding of Florida construction and a background in emergency explosive demolition was a necessity.

Getting the call

Approximately, 1,110 miles to the north, Controlled Demolition Inc. (CDI) President Mark Loizeaux was well-aware of the situation down in Surfside when he received a call at his office in Phoenix, Maryland, at 10 a.m. on July 1.

“I picked up the phone, and it was the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) calling on behalf of the FDEM. They asked, ‘You’re aware of the situation in Surfside?’ I said, ‘Yes, and I have reviewed structural plans of the building that were posted on the Surfside public information website.’ They asked, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think I can take the building towards Collins Ave.—the street on which the structure was located—without putting debris back on the historic debris that still needed to be searched and without compromising the critical utilities under Collins Ave. to the west.’” Loizeaux says, “You need to have worked in that part of Florida to understand that all utilities for that area go down Collins Ave. Taking down the building without compromising those utilities was absolutely critical. FDEM said, ‘How quickly can you get here?’”

After hopping on a plane and getting picked up at the Miami airport, Loizeaux arrived on-site and immediately began his on-site review of the exterior condition of the standing building in preparation for a meeting with FDEM and FDOT, and in anticipation of a follow-on meeting with FEMA engineers and Miami-Dade County representatives.

Following his review, Loizeaux says he was faced with the pressing question of how long it would take to get the structure down. “I [told them], ‘That clock starts running when ... I get what I need on-site. I can pull a truck with drilling equipment and two drillers from a job in Bayonne, New Jersey, and I can pull two CDL drivers off a project in Virginia who can drive the specialty explosives we need down here since Florida explosives providers don’t stock the type of explosives we would use on this project,’” he recounts.

When working in Florida, Loizeaux says CDI typically needs to order in these specialty materials, but given the emergency nature of the Surfside demolition, Loizeaux says they didn’t have time for that. “FDEM asked, ‘When can your drillers and the explosives be here?’ I said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock,’ and they said, ‘Do it,’” he says.

While he waited for his staff and supplies to arrive, Loizeaux met to discuss the demolition schedule with FDEM, FDOT, FEMA engineers, Miami-Dade County representatives and representatives from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, before meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

Since CDI didn’t hold a current general contractor license to be the main demolition contractor on this Florida project, the FDOT officials familiar with the area brought in local demolition contractor BG Group to serve in that role. They learned from BG Group that CDI had worked with them on numerous implosion projects in the area over the years, developing a strong working relationship.

When asked about BG Group’s experience, Loizeaux told FDEM that BG Group knew exactly what local support CDI would need for this type of project. On direction from FDEM, BG Group immediately mobilized materials and equipment in anticipation of the preparation and protection scenario CDI had outlined for them.

“Very, very little support from BG Group was needed with the plan I had developed to bring the structure down, because I did not intend to work above the lobby level in the still-standing portion of the structure. I did not want to put personnel above the lobby level because that would have exposed them and BG personnel to unnecessary risk,” Loizeaux says.

CDI crews and materials arrived on-site on the morning of July 2 along with an eight-man crew, materials and equipment provided by BG Group. As Miami-Dade County put together paperwork and a purchase order for the project, CDI’s crew went over their strategy for felling the building and the safety protocols which they and BG Group personnel would follow on-site.

On the morning of July 3, search and rescue crews were pulled from the adjacent debris pile and CDI got the green light to commence preparations for the implosion, which required drilling of columns on the first floor and basement, as well as carefully monitored structural modifications to the standing portion of the condo on those levels. Simultaneously, BG crews began placing at-source protection on the columns and shear walls to be blasted, as well as a perimeter curtain to control flying debris from the detonation of explosives.

Loizeaux says that FEMA engineers already had two sets of lasers monitoring the stability of the standing structure, but he asked for an additional monitoring position, which was furnished by FDOT. That monitoring program gave comprehensive real-time information to Loizeaux, who was in constant radio communication with monitoring teams, about any motion detected in the structure as it was prepared by CDI’s crew.

The concern for potential collapse of the remaining portion of the structure was magnified by Tropical Storm Elsa, which was bearing down on Florida’s coast at the time. The forecast track indicated that the storm could bring heavy rain and tropical storm winds with it if Surfside remained within the track of the storm as it proceeded to the north. The prospect of tropical storm winds added to the urgency of getting the standing structure down quickly to permit FEMA and US&R to return to the debris pile to search for survivors within their calculated window of survivability following the original collapse.

“We had a structurally failed, yet standing building. It no longer met the criteria of a stable structure to withstand outside agencies such as high wind. While it was structurally failed, by technical definition, it just hadn’t chosen to fall—yet. I looked at it from outside and noted a lot of cracking as well as displacement of columns and slabs along the east face of the structure. Motion had also been detected by FEMA’s survey team performing monitoring, which caused them to evacuate search and rescue personnel off of the debris pile on multiple occasions for reasons of safety. Once things calmed down or winds diminished, search and rescue went back to work,” Loizeaux explains.

Loizeaux says that CDI had protocols in place to get workers out of the building in less than a minute, including planned exit routes based on how the building might fall, if there were indications that the structure was going to progressively fail.

“A dynamic structure will talk to you,” he says. “It will make sounds you are listening for, and you are mindful of the noise that you’re making that might mask those sounds. You are also looking for motion in the debris, or even dust—if suddenly dust is falling where it wasn’t falling before, that means that something is moving. When you combine those standard auditory and visual monitoring practices in the building with the outside monitoring program, you have a reasonable plan of safety moving forward.”

After working roughly 11 hours Saturday, July 3, Loizeaux made the decision to shut down operations for the day for the sake of his workers’ safety.

“We shut down overnight because I only had a small emergency crew, and you can only work people so many hours before it can become dangerous in a structure like this,” he says. “Also, I didn’t want to work in the building at night because the exterior monitoring outside the building was less effective after dark.”

On the morning of Sunday, July 4, the rested crew arrived back on the site at 6 a.m. to finish drilling holes and loading the lobby and the basement of the building with explosives and final cover. After the prep work was completed, Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue blocked off the surrounding area and Loizeaux met with utility companies to go over plans for protecting these assets under Collins Ave. As part of this planning, FDOT came in and laid 3-feet-thick granular material on one lane of Collins Ave. to protect critical utilities right under the surface.

Loizeaux says that with all of CDI’s prep work completed at around 4:30 p.m., crews sat and waited to be granted final approval to proceed with the implosion. Six hours later, this approval was granted, and at 10:30 p.m., CDI felled the remainder of Champlain Towers South without damage to adjacent facilities—some of which were 20 feet from the structure—and without compromising critical utilities under Collins Ave. All debris rotated away from the historic debris from the first collapse with nothing but dust landing on the layer of geotextile fabric BG Group placed over the historic debris to the east.

Such a job would normally take weeks of approval and planning to execute. It took CDI’s crew just 18 working hours in total to prepare, load and drop the building with the help of BG Group’s personnel.

According to Loizeaux, both the cooperation of local government officials and CDI’s experience in performing emergency services were paramount in helping expedite the job.

“Gov. DeSantis personally took an interest in the job along with Mayor Cava of Miami-Dade and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett. They moved everything forward and they expedited everything. There is no question that it helps that CDI has been doing this type of emergency work for over 60 years. … For CDI, the project was a matter of performance under standard emergency procedures, which we are well-geared to handle.”

Takeaways

Loizeaux says that while the Surfside job was reminiscent of previous emergency implosions the company has performed, such as taking down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and felling structures in Mexico City after an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the city in 1985—the Surfside project was unique in that search and rescue efforts were still underway while CDI was on the job.

“Did it heighten the urgency? Of course, because it was all about getting the threat of the standing structure down so that FEMA and US&R could try to rescue people that may have been trapped in the remaining debris,” Loizeaux says. “That underscored the urgency of getting the job done quickly and safely.”

Despite a heightened sense of urgency, Loizeaux is quick to point out that CDI doesn’t let the gravity of such a situation interfere with proper procedures.

“Pressure does not help anyone in terms of safety or performance. In fact, it impedes it. What it does is it distracts you from what you have to do, step by step, in a linear fashion, obeying the safety protocols, the sequence of operations to prepare the structure, etc. So, we don’t let pressure enter into the equation. It’s counterproductive,” he says.

Within an hour of CDI eliminating the threat of the still-standing structure, Loizeaux says local authorities were able to increase the number of search and rescue workers working on the pile of rubble from around 100 to 250.

Ultimately, after the implosion, no additional survivors were found in the debris of Champlain Towers. In all, the disaster claimed 98 victims.

Although Loizeaux says his team did what it could to fast-track the demolition, he can’t help but wonder what might have been if he’d gotten that call sooner.

“Within a few hours after we dropped the building, they had already found four more bodies. They were able to do so much more because they were finally able to access the debris they couldn’t get to previously,” he says. “They had hoped to find additional survivors, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. For me, that’s the takeaway. I think a lot of people involved on the project wish they had known about CDI’s capabilities four days sooner. If CDI could have removed the threat of the standing structure sooner, US&R could have gotten access to all of the debris more quickly and there is a remote possibility that they might have found someone alive. No one will ever know.”

Despite no additional survivors being found, CDI’s quick work and professionalism displayed in Surfside helped bring closure to a community dealing with a tragedy, the cause of which is still being investigated at the time of this writing.

“It’s always nice to have a chance to give back what you know. My heart goes out to the people that lost loved ones,” Loizeaux says. “I have unending respect for first responders. People that go out there and put themselves at risk trying to find survivors, they’re just amazing people. It’s always rewarding to work with them. I’m just glad we were available and had the opportunity to do what we could to help.”

The author is the editor of C&DR and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.