A button ‘could have saved more lives’ in Florida condo collapse

Surfside, Fla. – At midnight last June, there was silence after a loud bang that shook Joanna Handler and her mother.

15-year-old Jonah and his mother, Stacey Fang, went to their terrace and looked up, thinking ominous sounds were coming from the roof of the 13-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida. But standing on the 10th floor, he couldn’t see anything wrong, so he sat back for the night.

Everything was calm. No alarm sounded. No evacuation order arrived. But the condo tower was on the verge of collapse.

A year after the devastation at the Champlain Towers, with the cause of the collapse still under federal investigation, new documents, interviews and deposition records shed fresh light on a critical 7-minute period between the pool deck’s roaring initial failure and the eventual Is. The cascading collapse of a portion of the building, one of the deadliest structural failures in American history, killed 98 people.

Security guards in the lobby of Champlain Towers quickly dialed 911 to report the initial failure. The alarm could sound in a limited part of the building at the time, although it was clearly inaudible to many of the people who were still sleeping.

The building also had a sophisticated audio alert system designed to broadcast alerts to the bedrooms of every unit. But it was never operational, newly available statement testimony and interviews show, as security guards were never trained about the system and needed a button to activate it.

“If I had known about it, I would have suppressed it,” Shamoka Furman, a security guard, said in an interview.

The performance of the building’s automatic fire alarm system is one of many frustrating questions still unanswered 12 months after the collapse. With 7 minutes elapsed between the pool deck failure and the time of the catastrophic fall, have some of the residents who slept through the initial surge be able to make their way to safety?

In the part of the building that eventually collapsed, Unit 1002 killed nearly everyone, including Jonah’s mother. Jonah, who was pulled out of the rubble, miraculously survived with 12 broken vertebrae.

He said he had never heard any alarm and that any audio and video recordings that surfaced after the disaster could not be heard before the collapse.

Jonah’s father, Neil Handler, who was not in the building, said he was confident that with a 7-minute warning, Jonah, his mother, and several others would be able to escape.

“I just think of all the lives they could have saved,” he said.

On Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Michael A. Heinzmann approved a more than $1 billion settlement involving insurance companies, developers and other parties involved with Champlain Towers from the bench. Securitas, a company with a global footprint that was hired to help ensure the building’s safety, paid the largest portion of the settlement—more than $500 million.

Before the emotional hearing began, the judge observed a moment of silence to honor the victims. Relatives sitting quietly in the courtroom and survivors passed around the tissues.

Securitas said in a statement that its participation in the agreement “does not imply responsibility for the collapse of the building or the tragic loss of life.”

‘You press a button’

There are various ways for high risers to notify tenants of an emergency. Some older structures may have a basic fire alarm system that fires through the units. Speakers have been added to many towers built in recent decades to give residents an audible command and description of distress.

In the lobby of Champlain Towers, with its gleaming floors, recessed lighting and potted plants, a security desk included controls for a network of speakers that were installed in every bedroom in 2017 to ensure that Residents can be agitated if evacuation is required. “All Call” commands can be issued through a microphone on the lobby control panel.

“You push a button, it will power every speaker throughout the building,” Matthew Hyman, who led the company that installed the system at Champlain Towers, said in a statement. “You take the microphone, you say: ‘Hey, guys, there’s an emergency, get out of the building.'”

If the system had been used properly, he said, “then maybe it could have saved more lives, to be honest with you.”

Furman, who had been a Champlain Towers security guard for four months, said in an interview that he had received minimal training when he was hired, while another security guard spoke about the job profile while standing for an hour in the lobby. I told. She said she never learned about the “all call” button. The other guard declined to comment.

‘We decided to run’

The loud noise that brought Jonah and Fang to their balcony in the early stages of the disaster also woke Paolo Longobardi on the third floor. Thunder, he thought. But his wife, Anastasia, had heard something more disturbing: an unnatural, metallic crunch.

Both of them looked at the pool through the glass door of their bedroom, distraught from sleep. Beneath them, the pool deck was rolling in.

“It was disappearing into the ground,” Longobardi said. “It was like a wave coming from right to left – from south to north – and falling.”

Around that time, the building’s alarm system was beginning to activate, first at 1:15:29, when it signaled “trouble” according to the data log. Seventeen seconds later, a fire alarm was triggered. It sent an automated alert to a surveillance company, although it is not clear whether it generated an audible alarm on either floor. Soon after, a staff member from the monitoring company notified 911 that a fire alarm had been activated at Champlain Towers.

But as soon as signs of trouble were initially sent to the monitoring agency and then to the authorities, some people in the building were informed about what was happening.

As he watched the pool deck collapse from Unit 309, Longobardi, a civil engineer who builds bridges for a living, thought a giant sinkhole might swallow the parking garage beneath the deck.

“We decided to run,” he said.

Longobardis woke up her two children, ages 14 and 9, and escorted them out the door. Longobardi said one of the children remembered sounding the alarm as he fled.

In Unit 111 on the first floor, the Neer family, who had not yet gone to bed, also noticed trouble on the pool deck and ran for the lobby. Gabriel Neer said he did not remember hearing the fire alarm, but his family urged security guard Furman to call 911.

Furman dialed in. The first call came at 1:16:27, 41 seconds after the fire alarm went off.

“A big explosion,” she reported. No alarm could be heard in the background of the call.

‘There was silence’

Six stories up, in Unit 611, Ileana Montagudo awoke from her sleep, worried that she might not close her balcony door. Sure enough, it was open.

But as soon as she went to lock it, she found that the door was stuck. No alarm sounded in her room, but she could hear the car alarm from afar. Just then he heard a hoarse voice and saw a crack falling from his roof.

“Run,” a voice in his head told him.

With silence on their floor and no sign of a building in distress, Jonah and his mother returned inside their unit. He climbed back on the bed to sleep. She sat on the edge of his bed.

About 7 minutes after the fire alarm system was triggered, just after 1:22 p.m., the collapse turned 13 floors into a pile of rubble.

Neer was calling 911 and escaped safely. Montagudo managed to reach a ladder before falling around the building with the help of security guards.

But Jonah and his mother never left his bedroom.

The floors of the Champlain Towers pancake on top of each other, leaving just inches between some of them; A rescue worker later told Neil Handler that the concrete on top of Jonah formed an A-shaped frame over his head, which may have allowed him to survive. A man walking by saw Jonah’s hand coming out of the rubble and his fingers moving. He and another person alerted emergency workers.

The rescuer told Handler, who provided the details of Jonah’s survival for this article, that Jonah and Fang, who were 54, were found holding hands.

“When he was tearing them apart, they didn’t want to let go of each other,” Handler said.

Handler said that later that day, Jonah suffered a paralyzing fear when he heard sounds that reminded him of the Fall—particularly thunderstorms. Handler sometimes had to walk his son around for hours until the rain stopped.

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