Elena Blasser used her two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the Champlain Towers South to host family reunions on the beach.
She liked the ocean and the little Florida town of Surfside because they reminded her of her childhood homes in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
When she acquired Penthouse 11 a little more than a decade ago, she spent at least $100,000 on improvements. The complex’s difficulties then began.
The pool deck has a few hairline fractures. Walls that were freshly painted and readily chipped. In the garage, there is a pool of water. The monthly maintenance costs and special levies increased to cover it all.
“We’re paying those fees, but where do they go?” According to her son Pablo Rodriguez, Ms. Blasser, a 64-year-old retired schoolteacher, continued informing her family and neighbors.
She had no idea that the building’s issues were going to grow a whole lot worse. Engineers cautioned that the failing concrete and rusted rebar revealed in a consultant’s study commissioned in 2018 had already resulted to “severe structural damage.”
The condo board finally calculated that repairing it would cost $15 million. Ms. Blasser would have to come up with an additional $120,000 to cover her portion of the bill.
Long before half of the Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving up to 121 missing, including Ms. Blasser and her mother, Elena Chavez, 88, the building’s condominium association’s infighting was an open secret known to the residents’ relatives and friends, as well as residents of other nearby buildings.
It coexisted with the pleasures of the generally pleasant society of condo dwellers who had bought into the Florida ideal of beachfront paradise.
When John Turis, 76, was in town from Brooklyn, Emma Guara, 4, would stop him at the pool to play with Leela, his Cavalier King Charles spaniel.
Ana and Juan Mora would stop by a 10th-floor neighbor’s unit to see if she needed anything. When senior people stepped into the ocean, younger inhabitants would keep an eye out for them.
The meetings at the 13-story complex had established a poisonous reputation by the time the board members entrusted by their Neighbours with monitoring the property hired an engineer to tell them what they had long feared — that their old apartment was in desperate need of top-to-bottom repairs.
‘Oh my God, thank God you’re not at the board meeting,’ others remarked. Sharon Schechter remembers the incident. “There’s screaming and yelling,” says the narrator.
According to interviews with survivors of the collapse, former residents, relatives of the missing, attorneys, and internal papers obtained by The New York Times, tense stalemates delayed any decisions as the board became a hothouse of anger about who was to blame.
Mr. Rodriguez claimed Ms. Blasser’s dissatisfaction worsened with each passing year. She paid $60,000 for a special assessment to assist with repairs in 2017.
Then there was the most recent one, Mr. Rodriguez continued, his eyes welling up with tears.
He claimed she kept repeating, “I can’t believe we have to do this again.”
Ms. Blasser was fed up and decided to sell her apartment in April. She contacted a real estate agent and was promised it would sell fast for close to a million dollars.
Taylor Corey, the agent who never got to publish the listing, stated, “She was desperate to get out.”
No one expected the 40-year-old structure that locals had fought so bitterly over to be nothing more than a mound of debris and an unfathomable scene of anguish by 1:30 a.m. on June 24.
Champlain Towers South, which had previously been mostly populated by seniors and winter snowbirds, had recently begun to attract more year-round residents, especially younger families.
Surfside has grown from a quiet Miami Beach enclave to a sought-after neighborhood on the rise. Champlain Complexes South began to seem antiquated in the midst of an increasing number of dazzling new condo towers.
The structure was due for complete 40-year recertification this year, as required by Miami-Dade County for high-rises of that age.
The condo board would be in charge of the review, which, like other condominium associations around the nation, is run entirely by volunteers with little or no experience in building finance, or property management.
They have immense power over the common lives of hundreds of families who have chosen to live under one roof, with minimal monitoring.
The consultant engineer Frank P. Morabito’s 2018 engineering report was profoundly concerning. He didn’t say if the building was in danger of collapsing, but he estimated that repairs would cost more than $9 million.
The board invited Surfside’s building official, Ross Prieto, to a meeting. Residents like Susana Alvarez were comforted by his presence.
She explained, “Prieto sat in front of us and remarked — his words — that the building is in extremely good form.”
Unit 1006 was purchased by Ms. Alvarez, 62, in 2009. Hilda Noriega, her mother’s dearest friend, lived in Unit 602. Their families spent their holidays and vacations together, and Ms. Noriega raved about the property.
Ms. Alvarez stated, “She said it was a wonderful apartment, it was a great complex.” “It was a neighborhood. I was planning on retiring there.”
Mr. Morabito’s report was alarming, but it did not appear to be a threat.
“We’re not engineers,” says the group. The board members aren’t engineers, she added. The locals were agitated by more than just the possibility of massive repairs.
They were also concerned about a large residential skyscraper designed by Renzo Piano, known as Eighty-Seven Park Miami, which was being built next door, in the city of Miami Beach but almost on the Champlain Towers South lot line.
Residents complained that the work was so near to their home that it was trembling.
“Champlain Towers was vibrating as they started digging for the piles,” claimed Spiros Dimitropoulos, a five-year renter.
Mr. Prieto received an email from Mara Chouela, a board member, on January 23, 2019. “We have worries about the construction of our building” as a result of the tremors, she explained and asked if someone from the town could check into it.
Mr. Prieto answered, “There is nothing for me to check.” He recommended that the occupants employ someone to keep an eye on the fence, pool, and other places for damage.
During the summer, the board concentrated on the issues raised by Mr. Morabito’s 2018 inspection.
The board of directors wrote to tenants in an undated letter that it was time for a “very honest conversation” regarding the building’s future.
“Your board has noticed over the previous few years that our building has been neglected, that repairs have been continually postponed or merely patched up, and that our property values have stayed woefully below what they should be,” they wrote.
Board members said they had attempted “in a reasonable way” to start getting things done during the last three years.
They stated, “Unfortunately, a handful of our residents have undercut our success with trivial objections, undermining the board members and administration.”
Mr. Turis, a New York real estate and mortgage dealer who purchased Unit 409 in 2005 for his daughter to reside in while she attended college, said the building has been plagued by board and property management turnover.
He remarked, “It was like nobody wanted the job.” “It didn’t seem like anyone survived more than two years.”
On Sept. 13, 2019, Graciela M. Escalante, the chairwoman of the committee in charge of the 40-year recertification project, recommended hiring Mr. Morabito’s firm to complete the work, despite the fact that his bid was the most expensive and initially caused “sticker shock,” according to the selection committee.
The board president, Anette Goldstein, and vice president, Nancy K. Levin, both resigned the next day, citing frustration with last-minute objections that kept delaying repairs.
Ms. Goldstein said, “This cycle has repeated itself over and over, ego fights, undermining fellow board members’ responsibilities, dissemination of gossip and mistruths.” “I am not painting a beautiful image of our board’s and many others’ functioning, but it portrays a board that works extremely hard but is unable to achieve the goals we set for ourselves for the reasons stated above.”
Ms. Levin, who had lived in the building from its inception, said it had gone from being Surfside’s “jewel” to being engulfed in a “political struggle of egos and power.”
Six days later, a third board member, Treasurer Maggie A. Manrara, left because she disagreed with other members who wanted to take $400,000 from the developers of Eighty Seven Park to settle their concerns, despite the board’s lawyers’ recommendations. It was eventually rejected by the board.
Six of the board’s seven members resigned in total, with five of them doing so in the two weeks running up to Oct. 3, 2019. Ms. Escalante and others expressed their concerns at a board meeting later that day.
She was chosen president and being the building authority for the nearby hamlet of Bal Harbour, she was well qualified for the position.
Marcelo Pena, who owned Unit 708 as a vacation house, resigned from the board on Oct. 23, 2019.
The following month, he wrote to the board, accusing the previous members of prioritizing common-area bathroom improvements above structural maintenance, saying, “The structure is coming apart.”
“With the state of the concrete, someone may be badly hurt or killed,” he added.
Ms. Escalante didn’t have much of a chance. She resigned on December 15, 2019, claiming health issues, and nine months later sold her condo.
In 2020, new board members took over and accomplished something none of their predecessors had: they were able to acquire a $15 million line of credit to pay for the repairs highlighted by Mr. Morabito in 2018. On closer scrutiny and as time passed, the project’s cost had risen.
The board set out the facts in a series of slide show presentations. One from May 28, 2020 remarked, “We should have begun saving at least five years ago.”
Further investigations revealed that the waterproofing issues above the garage were considerably more prevalent than previously anticipated, according to a presentation in October 2020: “This has exposed the garage to water infiltration for 40 years.”
According to Andres Paredes, a real estate agent engaged in a 2020-unit sale, the building was coveted in the growing market because of its close-up view of the South Florida surf.
Prospective purchasers were informed about the planned multimillion-dollar repair by the condo management, he claimed.
Even with the assessments that would almost certainly be required to cover the expense of repairs, a New York couple thought Unit 202 was a smart investment. The total cost was $460,000.
Ms. Blasser and other long-time homeowners have previously been hit with special charges for various maintenance.
One of them, which was supposed to be used for corridor improvements in 2016, was instead repurposed to help pay the massive 40-year repairs due to budget constraints.
They’d have to dig deep for extra cash: each unit would have to pay anything between $80,000 and $200,000 in cash or monthly installments.
It didn’t make anyone pleased.
Every day, Steve Rosenthal, 72, a restaurant advertising executive, went to the building’s gym. He’d next go to the pool, where he could see an “atrocious” crack on a third-floor balcony.
The $135,000 assessment on his apartment, a corner unit with two balconies, he referred to as a “second mortgage.”
He explained, “It’s an affluent building, but it’s not the Ritz or the Four Seasons.” “There are no Rockefellers or Rothschilds living there. We’re probably upper-middle-class, and a lot of us are retired.”
Mr. Rosenthal signed a petition against the assessment when a neighbor knocked on his door, 705. On July 1, the first payment was due.
When the assessments were sent out in April, Jean Wodnicki, the new condo board president, detailed the damage in a letter to owners that was far more serious than previously.
Since Mr. Morabito’s examination, the degradation had “seriously worsened,” and without assistance, the concrete concerns would “multiply exponentially.”
Ms. Wodnicki, the condo board president, admitted in an April letter to tenants that “a lot of this work might have been done or planned for in years gone by.” “However, this is where we are right now.”
Mr. Turis and his wife spent a couple of weeks in Surfside in late April. To honor his niece’s new birth, they hosted a large party on the balcony.
“You know, my wife thought we should come more often,” he added. For the Fourth of July, they planned a long weekend.
The complex’s sales continued to soar. In 2021, seven apartments sold for record prices. Penthouse A sold for $2.88 million in May.
The most recent apartment sold, 910, was characterized as a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom with “breathtaking vistas” by a real estate firm.
It sold for $710,000 on June 17th. Betty and Gil Guerra, who had only moved in a few months before, had rented the flat until July 30. They have yet to be found.
Ms. Blasser, a retired schoolteacher, heard cracking noises in her unit on June 23. Mr. Rodriguez, her son, said they were loud enough to wake her up at 3 a.m. and worrying enough to keep her awake.
A visitor sleeping at a neighboring hotel heard a tremendous boom about 1:15 a.m. the next morning, she told The Miami Herald.
She glanced into the Champlain Towers South parking garage and watched concrete fragments fall to the ground, as well as video of water flowing in.
Cassie Stratton, 40, was on the phone with her husband, Michael Stratton, shortly before 1:30 a.m. She was looking out the window of Unit 412 when she saw a hole near the pool, which she notified him about.
The connection then went dead.