SURFSIDE, Florida – José L. Haar remains claustrophobic and suffers from chronic back pain, lingering effects of the hours spent trapped under the rubble between two brothers who died decades ago.
Hired to haul debris from a demolition project, Haar was one of three survivors of the 1997 collapse of the Biscayne Kennel Club, a dog track near Miami that collapsed while being vandalized by an unlicensed, uninsured and unregistered subcontractor.
“Everybody started to blame it: the owners, the city,” said Haar, who worked for a demolition company there.
The Biscayne Kennel Club in Miami Shores, Florida, after its 1997 collapse. Photo Tim Chapman / Miami Herald, via Associated Press.
“It was a very difficult situation.”
The collapse of the building in which two men died has returned to the news after it came to light that a city inspector who made multiple visits to the site during the doomed demolition was Ross Prieto, the top construction official in Surfside, who told residents of Champlain Towers South that his building seemed to be in good condition nearly three years before its deadly collapse last week.
Destroyed balconies and cranes at the Champlain Towers South condominium building. Photo Scott McIntyre / The New York Times.
Your assurances to condo owners in November 2018 that your building appeared to be “in very good shape“, despite the worries from a consulting engineer, are one of many things investigators are likely to look at as they try to determine what led to the June 24 failure, which left at least 18 people dead and more than 140 people unaccounted for.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. Photo Scott McIntyre / The New York Times.
In the absence of clues as to the cause of the collapse, experts hope that researchers will examine a wide range of possible factors, such as delays in applying the consultant’s recommendations for repairs, the design flaws or construction, any problem with subsoil soils and the possibility that some external force – a vehicle hitting a pole in the underground car park, for example – could have affected a key structural component of the building.
South Florida cities are reviewing the oldest skyscrapers along the coast, famous for the effects of weather on buildings, to determine if any of them face potentially serious structural problems.
The city of Doral, where Prieto has worked as a consulting building engineer since May, announced this week that Prieto was on leave for undisclosed reasons, and that he was reviewing the eight projects he had worked on in that city.
Even if there are no signs of problems with your workA spokesman for the city said, the review was being conducted by “abundance of caution“.
Prieto has not spoken publicly since the Champlain Towers South collapse and has not responded to repeated requests for comment or a note left on his door.
Prieto, 54, who has a master’s degree in construction management, has more than 25 years of experience as a building and roof inspector in at least six South Florida cities, including Miami, Miami Beach, and Hialeah.
In 1997, he was the deputy director of construction and zoning for Miami Shores, where the track was located.
Had visited the place four times before the collapse, he said then, and declared to the Miami Herald that his job was to make sure that work was done on schedule, “not that the workers used proper procedures,” the Herald paraphrased.
“Everything was going according to plan,” Prieto said, according to The Associated Press.
“From what I’ve heard, this is just a construction accident. Accidents can happen,” he said.
For more than seven years, Prieto was Surfside’s top construction official.
Emails released by the city show that Prieto had had knowledge from a critical engineering report that warned in 2018 of damage to the building’s concrete and steel reinforcement that in some places could have threatened its structural integrity.
When he attended a condo association board meeting that November, he assured residents that the tower appeared to be in “good condition“, according to the minutes of the meeting.
Later, when a Champlain Towers South resident wrote to the city expressing concern that blasting and other activities during construction at a neighboring site raised “concerns regarding the structure of our building,” Prieto refused to send someone to check it, according to the emails published by the city.
“There is nothing that I can check“he replied in another email.
“The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas as they are the closest to construction,” Prieto wrote.
No engineering records have appeared publicly suggesting a Connection between construction and damage at Champlain Towers.
On Thursday, Surfside officials hand-delivered letters to homeowners notifying them that all waterfront buildings over 30 years old and taller than three stories must hire engineers to begin the 40-year building recertification required by the law – effectively starting the process 10 years before.
The city also asks landlords to hire registered geotechnical engineers to analyze foundations and subsoil soils.
Prieto spent five years as a building inspector in nearby Miami Beach, where city officials agreed to pay him $ 80,000 a year – more than 50% above the advertised salary – because he had a variety of important licenses, including one on roofing.
City officials who hired him noted that a background check revealed financial problems, including a bankruptcy in 2002, as recorded in his personal file.
There is no indication that these issues were related to your competence as a building inspector, but they are generally considered possible. alarm signals during pre-hire background checks.
At one point, Prieto owned his own development company and was involved in various real estate development companies.
Court records show that while employed in Miami Beach in 2012, Prieto again filed for bankruptcy, this time telling the court that he had accumulated $ 1.7 million in debt.
He said he was losing one of the three properties he owned to foreclosure.
Within a few years of being in Miami Beach, their bosses complained that he was frequently late, that he had missed work for more than 20 days for a year, and that he was often unreachable, according to emails in his personal file.
The file shows that Prieto said that he did not notify that he was sick in time because he had sinus problems.
His bosses expressed concern that he often did not answer the phone when they tried to reach him.
It was discontinued after calling twice to say he was sick several hours after his shift had already started.
Surfside hired him in 2013, paying him $ 110,000 a year to be your construction manager.
“I was not made a participant in a problem. On the contrary, there were people who told me how happy they were with Mr. Prieto,” said Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, noting that he joined the city after Prieto was hired. .
“He can go over the committee meetings and, as I recall, people praised him for his responsiveness, his demeanor and his kindness.”
Prieto’s personnel file in Surfside suggests that city officials were examining closely the construction department during the time you worked there.
In 2019, the city manager put the department under administrative review.
In a memorandum, Guillermo Olmedillo, who was then the city manager, ordered Prieto to present a action plan what will include weekly reports of all inspections carried out.
In an interview, Olmedillo said that his objective had been modernize the permit systems and, finally, transfer building inspections to the county.
He had no problems with Prieto’s work, he said.
“His car was there before mine, I can tell you that,” Olmedillo said.
“With construction departments, there are usually a lot of complaints. People complain about delays in plan reviews, delayed inspections. It’s typical.”
Prieto’s record only reflects a performance evaluation, in which Prieto obtained good marks.
He left Surfside in October and joined CAP Government Inc, a company that provides building inspection services to municipalities.
Through that company, he served as an interim construction officer for the city of Doral, which paid CAP $ 110 per hour for his services.
CAP referred the questions to Prieto.
The collapse of the dog club in 1997 was blamed on the demolition subcontractor, which had a long history of security breaches and was accused of using dangerous techniques during the work.
The company, which was not licensed, was fined $ 90,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The company that obtained the municipal permit for the subcontractor, who had no role in the project, saw your license suspended.
Construction officials and experts said at the time that the case had highlighted the lack of strict code requirements for carrying out and supervising demolition work.
Haar, who moved to North Carolina after the track collapsed, said the Surfside disaster made him think a lot about his construction accident.
“There are never too many building inspections,” Haar said.
“Companies don’t tend to inspect their own projects very well.”
Mike Baker contributed information. Alain Delaquérière and Michael Majchrowicz contributed research.
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