Small team of federal investigators still investigating tragic Florida condo collapse

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The infamous collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium tower in Florida last year made millions nervous about their own buildings, and the case is not really over. Since the June 2021 tragedy, a team from the National Construction Safety Team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has been on the case. It preserved critical parts of the building in a secure warehouse. With more on the team’s work, the Director of Disaster and Failure Studies Tanya Brown-Giammanco spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Giammanco, good to have you on.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Good morning.

Tom Temin: First of all, tell us more about the Disaster and Failure Studies Project. This is something that I don’t think people are aware of totally that NIST has.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: The program really was started to give kind of oversight direction, supervision, coordination of all of the disaster work that NIST does. We gained a statutory authority following the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. Congress gave us an authority to do federal investigations of building disasters, with the hopes of understanding how we could possibly change codes and standards to prevent those kinds of tragedies. So the program was born out of that need, and gives us an opportunity to investigate these kinds of failures and make a difference.

Tom Temin: And in the case of the World Trade Center for that matter, and the Florida condominium, you’re really dealing with rubble, it sounds like. There’s not a building that sort of still have standing that you can look at closely. You’re dealing with very small clues, sounds like?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: That’s true. And there are a lot of them. With this condo collapse, we’ve got over 600 pieces of physical evidence. So that’s pieces of concrete columns, beams, things like that. We also have hundreds of documents, design plans, drawings, building permit kinds of things. It’s a big puzzle to put together with all of the remaining pieces.

Tom Temin: And what specifically are you trying to determine with this investigation?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: We are very specifically focused on getting a technical understanding of what initiated the collapse and the sequence of the collapse. We are not focused on finding faults, but we are looking at the building response itself. And again, our goal is always to try to come up with changes to codes and standards. That’s why we’re so laser focused on the technical causes.

Tom Temin: And so you really have to look at two elements here. One, was there a original sin in the design and construction that might have contributed to it? But also in the 30 or 40 years, however long it stood there, things happened to it that might have weakened it. So almost like a dual path that you need to look at?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: That’s exactly right. We have a project that’s solely focused on the history of the building. So that’s how it was designed and what has happened to it in the last 40 years. And we have to have that understanding to see how it may have changed or how it may have been constructed originally. But then there’s also the question of why did it stand for 40 years and then suddenly collapse? Was there a particular triggering mechanism? Or was it just ran out of capacity? We do not know the answers to that yet. But those are the paths that we’re chasing.

Tom Temin: The implication then is if you can discover these things, it might help existing buildings take a look at themselves in a different light and say, gee, we need to do this, so that doesn’t happen.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Sure. There’s a lot of questions right now in kind of the Miami-Dade area about this idea of inspections. Prior to this collapse, they were focused on doing a 40-year inspection and kind of recertification of buildings. So this building was actually going through that process. Its 40 year anniversary was up and it had recently had an engineer to look. But there’s been a lot of questions about whether 40 years is the right number. Should these things be inspected more frequently, so that if there is a problem, it can be caught sooner? So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to impact existing buildings that are getting older and aging on the coast. But there’s also of course, the opportunity to influence how new buildings are constructed in these kinds of ways and environments.

Tom Temin: And I imagine what it is that whatever interval buildings are inspected, what it is that inspectors look at, there might be more things that they have been overlooking or just didn’t think that could cause a collapse.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Yeah, absolutely. We’re hoping to be able to use our investigation to point out all of those kinds of things, making changes to the codes and standards themselves. But this space that you’re describing also gets into the practices. And we’re focused on that as well. If there are certain things they need to be looking for or checking or measuring at these recertification inspections, that’s part of what we would want to bring to light as well.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Tanya Brown-Giammanco, director of Disaster and Failure Studies at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. What is the status right now of the investigation? It’s been not even a year and a half since and where do you stand in all of this?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: We’re coming up on 14 months now, I guess, of the investigation. And we’re still really in data collection mode. All of our activities up to this point have really been focused on non-destructive testing. So that’s getting information from the existing pieces without harming them. So getting measurements, getting layouts, all of those kinds of things. And we are ramping up rapidly to begin destructive testing. So this is going to be actually breaking pieces of concrete off, doing material property tests, those kinds of things. So we’re gearing up for that. It should be starting very soon.

Tom Temin: And do you have say, the knowledge of given a piece of material, a chunk of material, where in the original building, that piece actually existed?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: The team has done a lot of work to try to figure that out. In many instances, we can tell. And in many instances, we have to kind of put the pieces together put the puzzle together, we coordinated really well with the Incident Command during the search and rescue phases. And so there was communication on the ground with the structural specialists who were marking some of those pieces of debris for us to be able to identify where they came from. We also have a lot of aerial drone footage that we can go back and see, okay, this one that’s marked number 12 came from this spot over here, there was a lot of GPS technology employed so that as things were removed, the location of them can be logged. So we do have a lot of information, a lot of data that tells us this specimen came from this spot and this floor, but there are some that we have to kind of piece together ourselves.

Tom Temin: Sure. So the sooner you can get to the site of a disaster, the better, sounds like?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Absolutely. Obviously, the need in a disaster is first to respond to the humans that may be trapped or killed. But from our perspective, we want to be able to get there while the evidence is still fresh, we do not want to interfere with the search and rescue operations. But it is critical for us to get the data and get the information before too much can be cleaned up. So in this case, we have a super rapid response. The event happens in the overnight hours on a Thursday, and we had boots on the ground on Friday evening. So we were able to turn around in less than 48 hours and start making those connections with the incident command which proved absolutely vital to us being able to collect the hundreds of pieces of evidence we needed.

Tom Temin: It strikes me that in many ways your operation is similar to that of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: It is and actually our investigation authorities, the National Construction Safety Team is modeled after NTSB and of course, their role being to investigate traffic transportation failures are being basically the same kind of thing for buildings. Now we have a little bit different authorities in our act we were modeled off of them.

Tom Temin: And what sort of skills and people do you need? What’s your own background in this whole endeavor?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: My background is in meteorology and wind engineering. So I traditionally have looked at tornado, hurricane, even some fire and other kinds of events, hail storms. I’m a natural-hazard-kind of person. My role really in this investigation is kind of the behind-the-scenes coordinating force. I make sure the team has what they need and can move them onto the ground quickly and get them the support they need now that we’re well into the investigation. On the team itself, we have a huge makeup. We’ve got obviously a lot of structural engineers, we’ve got material scientists, we’ve got social scientists, we’ve got geotechnical engineers. We’ve got a huge variety, people that specialize in data curation and data science analysis, statistics, a huge makeup, GIS experts, robotics experts, and those that work with drones. So it’s a pretty interesting makeup of people that really work together well to move this investigation forward.

Tom Temin: I was gonna say one of the elements that might have contributed here was the earth in the sand and the ground underneath the building could have changed and shifted, or it was near the ocean and could have been marshy, this type of thing. So that figures in also.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Yes. And that’s why we have teams kind of focused across such a wide breadth. We do have a geotechnical investigation, or a project team that focuses on exactly what you’re describing what was happening with the soil and foundation interaction at the time of construction and through the life of the building. And then we have people who are looking at the weather events that have occurred over the past 40 years. So there’s really a huge number of possibilities that we’re investigating. We call these failure hypotheses. There’s dozens of them, and we have to go through meticulously and either prove or disprove that they were possible. So it’s a lot of work. And it takes a really wide breadth of expertise to accurately evaluate all of them.

Tom Temin: And no deadline it sounds like. Do people spend full time on this one or is this one of several projects going on simultaneously?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: There are a lot of different projects that are going on around here at NIST. For the most part, our full time staff are generally on this project 50% to 100% of their time. It varies by person. Some people split their time between other projects as well. And then we have a wide variety of outside experts and contractors that may work part time or full time. It just depends on kind of the needs of the individual project. So a wide variety for us.

Tom Temin: And just a final question in Manhattan, New York, there have been in recent years construction of these incredibly tall residential buildings. I think each floor is millions and millions of dollars to buy. And they’re really, really skinny. And many of them take use of the most modern engineering and calculations and techniques. Do you ever worry about those? I mean, they’re not like the Empire State Building, which was built to last 1,000 years. Do you worry about some of those Central Park tall, skinny, expensive, weird buildings?

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: I don’t know. So I’m not a structural engineer. So I don’t get too much into that. But I mean, one of the things that I generally think about in this space, is there a building code in the area? If so, that automatically makes you feel a little better compared to places that have no code. Is it well enforced? Do they have good inspectors, do they have education for their inspectors? In the case of tall buildings, you’re almost always going to do a wind tunnel test to kind of look at the forces that the building may experience. So that gives you a bit more confidence in the ability of the structure to stand. So there’s a lot of factors that could go into that. I don’t know New York’s building code off the top of my head. I would be willing to bet that they have one which is already a step in the right direction.

Tom Temin: Tanya Brown-Giammanco is director of Disaster and Failure studies at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Thanks so much for joining us.

Tanya Brown-Giammanco: Thanks for having me.

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