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Breaking News: FL Condo Board Warned of Building Decay in April, 2021 Letter; 9/11 Response Leader: Collapse Search Teams Facing Health Risks. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 29, 2021 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. Good morning everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto. On day six of search and rescue efforts at that collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida, CNN has learned this, that residents received a letter in April, that was two months ago, sharing alarming details about the decay of the building's structure.

The letter seeking to explain to a $15 million special assessment to condo owners warned, quote, listen to this, "The concrete deterioration is accelerating and that the roof situation go much worse."

Erick De Moura lived in that building and he only survived because his girlfriend convinced him to stay at her place the night the building came down. He says he got that letter, wishes it came sooner.


ERICK DE MOURA, LIVED IN COLLAPSED FLORIDA CONDO: You look at the building and you look at the north tower, they need money to fix a lot of things.


DE MOURA: There was leaks in the garage, there was cracks on the (inaudible). So yes you need the money to fix it, you know, but unfortunately it was too late.


HARLOW: Too late he says. Those warnings only amplify this tragedy, 11 people are now confirmed dead, 150 people remain missing this morning. And even as the days go on loved ones, some of them are not giving up hope.

That includes Rachel Spiegel whose mother Judy is among the missing. She is clinging to hope that Judy will come home both for her and for her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old child.


RACHEL SPIEGEL, MOTHER MISSING AFTER FLORIDA CONDO COLLAPSE: She came to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Did you find grandma yet? Is she still missing?" And I said -- I said, "Scarlett look at me in the eyes." And I said, "Scarlett, I'm doing everything in my power to find her. I'm not going to stop." And I'm not going to stop.


HARLOW: And now look at this, these are photographs obtained by "The Miami Herald" and according to their reporting just 36 hours before the collapse of the south tower a pool contractor was brought in for basically cosmetic repairs, said he found an exposed and corroded rebar in the concrete of the pool equipment room on the south side of the underground garage. And took pictures and sent them to his boss because it was so alarming.

We have team coverage this morning following the aftermath of this tragedy. Let's begin with Rosa Flores on the scene. Rosa, what stands out to you in reading this full letter that was, again, just three months ago with these warnings?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know what stands out tot me Poppy is that what was warned in the 2018 structural report is exactly what transpired in the years and months later.

And I can't even begin to process how the families are dealing with this right now, because of course in 2018 we've learned that an official told residents at a condo association meeting that the building was OK, was in good condition.

But let me take you through it, because in 2018 the assessment for the repairs was at a total of $9 million and it warned -- that report warned that there was structural damage, that there were exposed and deteriorating rebar. That the waterproofing was beyond its useful life and that it needed to be repaired or if not that there would be an exponential deterioration of the concrete.

When you read this letter from April of 2021, this year, just a few months ago and it says that that is exactly what happened. There was an acceleration in the deterioration of the concrete and here we are.

I want to read a few paragraphs for you directly from this letter because it's really going to give you an idea of what we're talking about here. Quote, "Because so much of the needed concrete waterproofing work is underground, we must pull up almost the entire ground level of the lot to access the areas that require repair." It goes on to say, "This includes the pool deck, the entire entry drive and ground level parking, north side contractor parking and planters/landscaping."


Jim and Poppy, this is exactly what investigators say and experts say will most likely be the focus of the investigation, that bottom portion where we've been reading both in the 2018 report and now in this 2020 letter that was a big, major issue with the structural integrity of that building.

Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Rosa Flores, again --


HARLOW: -- thank you for walking everyone through what we know. We're learning more every single day, but this letter from three months ago is startling.

Well the first individual lawsuit and second overall lawsuit have been filed against Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.

SCIUTTO: And here's resident Steve Rosenthal the plaintiff in that lawsuit speaking to our colleague Erin Burnett last night.


STEVE ROSENTHAL, FILED LAWSUIT ON CHAMPLAIN TOWERS SOUTH CONDOMINIUM ASSOC.: I've lived on the beach for 20 years and before that had other condos on the beach and there's always cracks in the balconies and, you know, from salt water and erosion and the sun. So seeing cracks here and there didn't bother me.

I was not aware of any structural damage or a report from 2018 that was talking about major problems and a $9 million assessment that now turned into a $15 million assessment three years later. I was not aware of that.


SCIUTTO: Nick Valencia joins us now from the scene in Surfside. Nick, search and rescue operations they're still under way, in their sixth day now. Listen, the families are just going through something unimaginable, balancing hope. Hope that remains against the reality of what those rescue crews are finding. Tell us what that's like on this -- at the scene there.

VALENCIA: It's a roller coaster Jim. And just about every emotion that comes with processing grief, loss we've seen from this combination of family and friends here still waiting on closure.

And I think that that is what people really want, to find their loved ones, whether it's finding their human remains, their bodies, whether it's finding them alive that miracle that not only are the family and friends waiting for but also the first responders who are digging tirelessly day after day as we enter day six of this rescue effort that still not yet a recovery officially even if friends and family of those unaccounted are beginning to prepare, they tell me that the likelihood that they find their loved ones is very, very dim.

Abigail Pereira just a short time ago sent us this message here talking about her faith, saying, "Miracles exist so let's not for one instance stop sending light and love to my friends Fabian, Andres and Princess Sofia. We are here and will remain here until you appear." She goes on to say that "Positive energy transforms everything." But ultimately she tells me and as we spoke last night she's looking for closure.

And that's something that the family of Sergio Lozano they received when their loved ones were positively identified. He said from the view of his apartment he could see his parent's apartment, often seeing them cooking, enjoying each other's company. And what he finds comfort and solace in today is knowing that their bodies were found together.


SERGIO LOZANO, PARENTS KILLED IN FLORIDA CONDO COLLAPSE: I could see my mom cooking from apartment when night would fall. Their kitchen where my dad would sit and watch TV it wasn't there. It's just like I don't know.

RANDI KAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As the search continued were you -- did you have any hope that they would be found alive?

LOZANO: I didn't. I was just praying to God that they went quick and that they were together. I was told they were in bed together. That's the end of the romantic story, they were together.


VALENCIA: The overwhelming message we're hearing today is they want privacy. They've even told grief counselors we don't want another bottle of water, we don't want to pet your grief dogs, we just want some peace and quite. Today is day six. Jim, Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Goodness, more than 150 families going through that. Nick Valencia thanks so much.

Joining us now John Pistorino, he's a structural engineer, now hired to investigate the condo collapse. He also wrote the 40-year building recertification process for all of Miami Dade County.

John, it's good to have you along here. It's early, these are just early indicators and clues, but I want to draw your attention to this letter that went out to condo owners in April.

It cites a few things that they saw, concrete spalling or cracking in the concrete. The concern that the rebar, those metal struts in there, was rusting and a situation described as concrete deterioration.

When you see those factors identified it seems, you know, not just April but going back a couple of years what does that tell you about the structure?


JOHN PISTORINO, ENGINEER TO INVESTIGATE SURFSIDE CONDO COLLAPSE: Well, I'm -- said before I don't want to comment on this particular structure --


PISTORINO: -- there will be a lot of information coming in and taken into account. But board members generally, and I work with a lot of them, they -- they're not experts. They are relying upon an engineer's representation.

There could be explanations about spalling concrete and that type of thing, but if an engineer is -- thinks that there is some kind of an impending or potential problem that needs to be taken care of then that's what that engineer has to say. The building official has to be -- has to be informed.

And if the building official also taking in the information becomes alarmed, the building department themselves can have an independent engineer evaluate it. But in the end that's what the 40-year recertification program is about. You don't wait 40 years before you start looking at your building. You start taking care of it the day it was built when you -- when you first occupy it.

So the 40 year was only in -- it gives the building official the requirement that some engineer is going to certify that the building has been taken care of and is OK to go on. If a building official does not get that certification they send out a violation that says we haven't gotten it yet. And of course they have the police power, the building official has --


PISTORINO: -- if they don't get the certification then they can withdrawal the occupancy permit and close the building down.


PISTORINO: And that's the way this system is supposed to work.

HARLOW: Just again for viewers, I mean you're working right now to figure out what happened. Who hired you?

PISTORINO: Well, I've been hired by attorney's who represent people or entities. I'm not sure who they are, but that's what happens. But essentially any engineer that's going to be working on this, there will be many, many engineers all hired by different entities and the idea is that engineers will get together and they'll compare notes and they'll compare their expertise and they'll come up eventually with a consensus about exactly what happened.


SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this John, because we had our colleague Brian Todd going out with an inspection team in another building in the area where they've seen similar signs, you know, rusting rebar, et cetera.

I'm just as a layman here I'm curious how one repairs something like that. I mean, if it's rebar within concrete in an existing structure, people are living above it, I mean how do you -- how do you even fix something like that?

PISTORINO: Well we have a lot of that going on right now, but it just depends upon what kind of member is involved, whether it is a column that's holding up the building, is it a critical beam or is it a balcony area, where a lot of -- most of this can be fixed, if its not allowed to go on, with the building occupied.

But in some instances where it becomes a critical member then what happens is you have to shore it up. You have to put temporary shoring all the way up and if it's even at some risk you even have a temporary evacuation --

SCIUTTO: Got it.

PISTORINO: -- of the area until the -- until the work is done.

HARLOW: We have just learned moments ago President Biden will be traveling to Florida on Thursday, obviously to -- as early as Thursday, maybe after, obviously to bring, you know, his condolences to everyone and to actually see the site of where this catastrophe has happened.

Look, you've been doing this John for 54 years and it was after that DEA building collapsed that killed seven people I believe in 1974, that you helped set the 40 year recertification guidelines.

Now, I want to note that includes 10 year inspections within -- it's not just you don't do anything for 40 years, you inspect every 10 years. But I wonder if you think, given what happened here, this building was 40 years old, does recertification need to be more frequent?

PISTORINO: Our state statutes and building code requires them to maintain building in the same capacity, what was originally constructed. The 40 years came about because we had a building that did collapse and kill people that was a little less than 40-years-old that had not received the benefit of any maintenance.

And so we made a decision at that point that a building like that could deteriorate to the extent if it hadn't been taken care of. At that time people wanted 50 years, 60 years because of that but we managed to get the 40 years in effect. And -- but the 40 years is only a line in the sand. It doesn't mean you wake up one day in 40 years because you got a notice you're supposed to look at your building.


PISTORINO: No, that's not the case.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes.

PISTORINO: You should be looking at it at all times.

HARLOW: John Pistorino thank you --

SCIUTTO: Yes. HARLOW: -- for your time this morning.

PISTORINO: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still to come, rescue teams are using a giant trench to search for survivors and victims in this condominium collapse. How they're navigating this disaster, ahead.


And those first responders are facing very dangerous conditions as they work. Some of them similar to the risks after 9/11. The man who helped lead that rescue effort will be with us.

SCIUTTO: And Miami Beach is no inspecting more than 500 buildings to prevent a repeat of this disaster anywhere else. The mayor of Miami Beach will speak to CNN. That's coming up.



SCIUTTO: Well the difficult work goes on in Florida. Hundreds of emergency workers, in fact, doing the painstaking task of looking for the possibility of survivors in those devastating ruins of the Champlain Towers South Building.

HARLOW: They dug a huge trench through the rubble to try to help in the search. And our Tom Foreman is with us to help us walk through how they're using it. Good morning Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The trench that you're talking about here is indeed huge. You can sort of see it here, roughly a V shape here and then lines that go back this way and this way. About 40 feet deep at its deepest point, about 20 feet wide general because it's an irregular thing, more than 100 feet long.

And why is this so important that they have this here? The reason is because this will act first of all as a fire break. We know they've been dealing with fire and smoke a huge challenge to rescuers there. It allows them to get at it a little bit better. Easier access to all the layer inside here which have stacked up here. We kind of talk about pancaking of building, they're all stacked up there.

Now they have a little bit easier access which lets them help pinpoint survivors and victims by getting closer with microphones, inserted cameras, dogs, if they have carbon monoxide detectors things like that, anything that carbon dioxide to detect any sense of breathing, anything like that going on in there.

It helps them get closer and it makes this all safer, you're talking about the danger to these people doing this work, this is unbelievably difficult even to dig a trench like this safely without hurting somebody who might be inside, hurting people outside. It makes it safer for slabbing and cribbing. When we talk about slabbing we're talking about getting in and

removing whole layers here as you clear them which creates then a new top that can be looked at. That's the lifting of these big pieces you see every now and then.

When we talk about cribbing, that's a different matter. If you believe somebody's been found, typical procedure is to try to go in from above not from the sides, so you have less chance of collapse.

But if you must you do what's called cribbing, you build essentially structures inside there with wood or whatever it is you use to keep it from collapsing as you try to pull somebody out.

Huge danger for the people doing the work, huge danger for anyone who might be alive in side, because remember none of this even remotely stable. It just fell there and it's sitting there. It can move at any moment if it's touched or moved the wrong way.

And, of course, they're not going about this in some willy-nilly fashion here. What they typically do is they will establish search grids and they will study where they most likely would find people.

So, they have an idea where the bedrooms were, for example. The measure that against what they're finding and say, OK, we believe a bedroom would be over here, most likely place you might find somebody, whether you're finding somebody who did find a safe spot or whether you're finding somebody who did not, those are both equally important jobs right now really for many of these rescuers.

That's what they're looking at right now. That's why this trench is so valuable. It's making it safe and more accessible to try to do this grim, grim work.

HARLOW: Tom, thank you so much for explaining it to us. And they're heroes every day and night doing that work. We appreciate it.

The weather is going to make it a lot harder for them in the next few days on the search and rescue operation. Falling debris may make matters even more difficult. This is according the mayor Surfside, Florida. Listen to what he said.


CHARLES BURKETT, MAYOR OF SURFSIDE, FLORIDA: The put a little bit of a line on the -- on the pile of debris because they did have -- overnight they did have some stuff falling down from the building that still standing and that's going to have to be addressed.


HARLOW: One of the many dangers they're facing. My next guest says rescue workers searching for survivors in Florida in this collapse also face similar health risks to some of those first responders following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center here in New York.

I'm joined now by former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. He as in command of the department on and in the aftermath of 9/11.

Commissioner Von Essen, thank you for being with us today and for what you did for this city on 9/11 and the years that followed.


HARLOW: Look, you heard the fire chief, basically your counterpart in Florida, say this is the largest effort that they have had for any disaster in Florida that has not been a hurricane.

And you've noted tremendous similarities in terms of what the first responders are facing. Can you talk about those that we are not seeing on camera or that may not be in the headlines, but what they're dealing with every hour?

VON ESSEN: Sure. And I think the presentation that Tom Foreman just gave on the trench was excellent because it showed that the difficulties that the fire created for them and the problems that they encountered trying to put that fire out was actually a blessing to them in some ways because it forced them to dig that trench and that allows them now access in from different angles and a little bit more of a safe procedure for the guys and folks going through there.

What he mentioned about the cribbing and everything, it's so -- it's so dangerous for the fire fighters once the do get an void or an angle or they dig a small tunnel to be crawling through it.

But what they face is very similar, I think. It's the closest incident I've seen since September 11 to what we did have. Of course ours was 110 stories, 2 buildings, so it's much, much smaller, but every problem is the same just on a smaller scale.

They now have to deal with not just their own health issues now that that fire is out that will make a big difference. That smoke that they were breathing in early on I don't seen any of the pockets of fire that we had for months after September 11, so that's a good thing.

HARLOW: Right.

VON ESSEN: Most of the guys I see are wearing respirators, so that's very important.

HARLOW: You just heard the mayor of Surfside say that yesterday they were dealing with falling debris from the building and, you know, that will likely continue is their concern.

And you've also noted, look, when you lift debris up from the ground the ground underneath often shifts. So it's like they're facing danger constantly from the top, not to mention the weather, and then below them when they have to move these beams. How do you deal with that?

VON ESSEN: Well, you do it the best you can. They just try to have a lot of people watching it, they have meters, they have -- the reason FEMA comes in and is so valuable to them is they bring in incident management teams and they sit down, like Tom Foreman said, and they map out in a grid every spot of that whole disaster, every couple of feet is -- has got a -- has got a number that they can recognize it.

So, when they find somebody or they see a break or they see anything involving that particular area the FEMA folks, unless the Miami team had their own incident management team, I don't think so, the FEMA team then is at least communicating with the incident manager to give them all that information and just try to get them as much information as quickly as possible so they can react, they can get the rescue workers out, they can bring in more shoring, whatever they need to do.

And this is what's going to make them eventually, and I think sooner than later, make a decision to maybe cut back on the rescue effort. Because as the days go by it becomes less and less likely they're going to find any survivors.

HARLOW: It's -- it's such a -- it's such a hard saying beyond difficult thing for any family member waiting with hope to hear. But I -- but I do want to ask you about that commissioner, because in the wake of 9/11 you really had to balance the reality of the passing days and the dangerous situation that remained with the hope that every family member, of course, holds for their loved ones.

How do you -- how do you do that?

VON ESSEN: I don't know. I look back at it and I think maybe we gave too much hope for too long. Even the first night we went Gracie Mansion and the experts told us we would not find anybody and they were absolutely right.

But we held out hope for weeks and weeks thinking we didn't want to, you know, just end it for the families. And I'm not sure when I look back at it whether we did them any good by giving that hope because sometimes it's a false hope.

The compaction, the compression, the -- we had more -- a lot more vaporization than they have here. We had tremendous heat so that kind of like just everything disintegrated. But that's not what they've had here.

They just had a pure collapse, but a lot of heavy concrete, a lot of compression, a lot of steel and as the days go by there's just less and less chances of finding survivors. But the experts there will make that decision bases on what they think is the risk to the rescuers and the reward of finding somebody as remote as it becomes as the -- as the days go by.

HARLOW: Yes, and let's remember all of the first responders for the months and years after this, it's PTSD Awareness month and they're going to carry this with them as will the family members of those who have been lost.

Commissioner Von Essen thank you.

Well we have a lot of ways that you can help. If you'd like to help the survivors and their families, victims, you can go to SCIUTTO: And still to come this hour former President Obama calls out

former President Trump over his 2020 election lies, calling them a whole bunch of hooey, his words. And warning more broadly that our democracy is in danger.