The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal research laboratory specializing in engineering and other technical areas, announced on June 30 that it would conduct a full technical investigation into the causes of the June 24 partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida.

The investigation could take years to complete and will seek to understand the technical cause of the building’s failure so the agency can, if it is deemed necessary, make recommendations for specific standard, code, and practice improvement in building design.

The Champlain Towers South condominium partially collapsed between 1:24 a.m. and 1:25 a.m. on June 24. The Washington Post reports that emergency responders were already en route to the site after a partial collapse of the swimming pool deck and surface level parking was reported via a 911 call at 1:19 a.m.

partially collapsed building
Champlain Towers South condominium partial collapse (Courtesy of NIST)

The town of Surfside has made public many of the tower’s building records, including a 2018 inspection report of the tower conducted by Frank P. Morabito, P.E., M.ASCE, the president of Morabito Consultants. Morabito provided the town with the report at 5:35 p.m. on the day of the collapse.

The report was provided to the condominium association in 2018 along with an estimate of the probable costs to make the extensive and necessary repairs that had been identified in the inspection, according to a statement on the firm’s website. Because the report was submitted to the town outside of the Miami-Dade County Code requirements, it is currently considered an unverified report despite having been submitted by Morabito.  

The NIST investigative team will include NIST staff and outside experts who will be deployed to Florida to examine the collapse site. The team will not interfere with currently ongoing search and rescue operations and will only enter the site when it has been determined safe to do so, according to the agency. NIST is working with government officials at the collapse site and will cooperate with all ongoing local, state, and federal investigations.

The NIST team will collect and study information about the building’s design, construction, modification, and maintenance as well as building materials and soil samples from the site.

people in masks and yellow vests look at a concrete column laying on the ground
NIST and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff members inspect a building element from the Champlain Towers South partial collapse in Surfside, Florida. (Courtesy of NIST)

The investigation is being launched by NIST under the National Construction Safety Team Act that was passed by Congress in 2002, the aim of which is to improve the safety and structural integrity of buildings. Under this act, the director is empowered to deploy expert teams after a building failure that either resulted in a substantial loss of life or posed a significant potential for doing so. (Currently James Olthoff, Ph.D., is performing the duties of the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and NIST director.)

The preliminary NIST team determined that the collapse met NCST Act criteria for full investigation under the Code of Federal Regulations: The partial collapse involved “a major building failure at significantly less than its design basis, during construction, or while in active use.”

The NCST act grants NIST the ability to collect and preserve evidence from the site of a failure, issue subpoenas, and hold hearings but not to conduct a criminal investigation.

NIST does not investigate all failures and disasters; this will be just the fifth investigation conducted and report issued by NIST under the NCST Act. The first four were the collapse of World Trade Center I, 2, and 7 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island; the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado; and the 2017 Hurricane Maria devastation in the northeastern Caribbean.

NIST seeks any videos or photos that might help the Champlain Towers South investigation and is encouraging the public to submit them via its dedicated data portal.