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After A DEA Building Collapsed In 1974, Engineer Created Recertification Program To Prevent Future Disasters

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A portion of Champlain Towers South Condo, in Surfside, collapsed early Thursday morning. Miami-Dade search and rescue is combing through the rubble for victims and survivors. Photo: Miami Dade Fire Rescue / Miami Herald

Engineer John Pistorino was a newly licensed engineer working for Miami-Dade County when the DEA building collapse led him to create the inspection program.

In 1974, when the federal Drug Enforcement Agency building in downtown Miami collapsed, John Pistorino was early in his engineering career working for the county as a consulting engineer.

The collapse killed seven federal employees and injured 16 people.

Six tons of rubble left behind led Pistorino to conclude that concrete buildings in South Florida can face particular risks. The aggregate rock used in concrete can contain salt which, combined with the humidity and salty ocean air, can corrode reinforcing steel.

“When the reinforcing steel corrodes, it expands and cracks the concrete. It loses all of its structural capacity,” he said.

While collapsing buildings, then and now, are extremely rare, Pistorino came up with Miami-Dade’s recertification program used in many cities — including Surfside — and in Broward County. It requires buildings to be inspected at 40 years old — about the age of the DEA building when it fell.

“That’s where the 40 came from” said Pistorino, who has been president of Pistorino and Alam Consulting Engineers since 1986.

The buildings must be reinspected every 10 years after that.

The goal was to help prevent another collapse. The Champlain Towers South Condo was in the midst of its recertification process when it fell Thursday.

“I’m just sick to my stomach, frankly, because I tried to, you know, it was a building collapse and now we have a building come down,” he said. “I just can’t believe it.”

Under the program, once a building turns 40, a licensed engineer or architect must recertify the building for occupancy. That means combing through old maintenance records, looking at original plans and doing both structural and electrical on-site inspections. Inspectors look for telltale cracks or any signs that might indicate a building’s instability.

“They would be looking for cracks, bulges,” he said, and testing the building for hollow sounds or stucco covering concrete. “They would be looking for any kind of deterioration, especially down near the bottom areas and also along exposed balconies.”

Balconies, especially, can be avenues for wind-driven rain that contains salt seeping into the structure, he said, “if the concrete has not been protected properly with paint or other kind of protection.”

After the DEA building collapsed, engineers blamed an overloaded parking garage. In her book “The Corpse Had A Familiar Face,” former Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan said the agency had just started seizing cars from drug dealers and parking them in the garage.

Pistorino didn’t want to speculate on what led to the Champlain Tower collapse until more is known about the condition of the building and nearby construction work.

“I’ve been involved in many collapses we’ve had around the state and I’ve learned that engineers should not comment or speculate on what could be or what couldn’t be until we get to the really bottom of the issue,” he said.

He said geological surveys of surrounding soil and rock are done before work begins and can determine what kind of foundations or other structures are used to protect surrounding buildings.

“There’s other issues, not only corrosion. There could be settling that goes on where the foundation starts to settle. Cracking is a telltale sign of something we call overloading. Even hurricanes will create a stress in a building that overloads or cracks a member,” he said.

If inspectors had spotted something alarming, Pistorino said that they can order an evacuation until repairs are made.

Getting property owners to comply isn’t always easy, he said. A former employee of Pistorino’s now works for Miami Beach and said owners will sometimes question the need.

“People come in and say, ‘Why do we have to go through all this? We’ve been maintaining our building very well,’” he said.

So Pistorino will, “pull out a picture that I have of the [DEA] building that collapsed in downtown Miami and say ‘This is why we do it.’”

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