High-Rise Building Collapses: In the Past 50 Years, 174 People Have Died and Hundreds Injured. The Typical Collapse Is During Construction – Not 40 Years Later

Debris from Collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza Apartment Building Where 28 Construction Workers Died in 1987

Debris from Collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza Apartment Building Where 28 Construction Workers Died in 1987. Photo Source: National Bureau of Standards

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: June 30, 2021 ~

On Thursday, June 24, the day that the 40-year old Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida collapsed suddenly at 1:23 a.m., the Sun Sentinel newspaper ran this headline later that day on its website: “Buildings don’t just fall down. Why did the condo in Surfside?”

If you’ve been carefully following the news over the past half century, you know that a number of tall buildings have fallen down in the United States. But the vast majority of those have been from a domestic or foreign terrorist attack or gas explosions.

What the majority of Americans do not realize is that the biggest risk to a high-rise building collapsing comes during the construction phase – and the reasons for that should greatly concern all Americans.

We did research in the federal government’s various archives and located four high-rise buildings and one five-story building that have collapsed since 1971. Multiple fatalities occurred in all five and all five collapses occurred during construction. In each and every case the collapse involved faulty design and/or faulty construction work, raising serious questions about local government oversight of these projects.

On January 25, 1971 four construction workers were killed and 20 injured when a 16-story luxury condominium collapsed at 2000 Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton, Boston while it was under construction. A failure that began on the roof created a progressive collapse that spread all the way to the basement. An investigation placed the causes as: lack of proper building permit; insufficient concrete strength; insufficient length of rebars; lack of proper field inspection; structural design deficiencies; improper formwork (concrete molds); premature removal of formwork; inadequate placement of rebars (reinforcing steel); and lack of construction control.

Just two years later, on March 2, 1973 the 26-story Skyline Plaza apartment building in Fairfax County, Virginia collapsed during construction with 14 construction workers killed and 34 workers injured. A federal investigation described the causes as follows:

“Non-compliance with OSHA construction standards has been identified with regard to formwork, field-cured concrete specimens and crane installation. Specifically, the construction procedures did not comply with standards for the removal of supporting forms. It is concluded that premature removal of forms was a contributing factor to the collapse in building A-4. An analysis of the 23rd-floor slab indicates that its most likely mode of failure was in shear around one or more columns in section 3 of the floor slab. The strength of the 23rd-floor slab on the day of collapse has been estimated to be at a level that removal of shoring could have produced shear failure in the slab.”

The next major collapse of a multi-story residential building, also under construction, occurred just eight years later. On March 27, 1981 Harbour Cay Condominium in Cocoa Beach, Florida collapsed entirely at around 3 p.m. in the afternoon during the placement of concrete for the roof slab. Eleven construction workers were killed with another 23 injured. This was the five-story building.

The Harbour Cay Condominium collapse was investigated by the National Bureau of Standards, a federal agency, which concluded as follows:

“…two factors contributed to the collapse: one in the design and the other in the construction of the building. In design, a check for punching shear was omitted. In construction, the specified chairs used to support the top reinforcing steel provided more than the cover called for in the structural drawings. The analysis showed that the shear stresses at many column locations in the fifth floor exceeded the nominal shear strength. Once punching shear failure had initiated at column G-2, it propagated throughout the slab causing the total collapse of the fifth floor, which, in turn, caused the successive collapse of the lower floor slabs.”

Six years elapsed before the next high-rise collapse on April 23, 1987 at the L’Ambiance Plaza Building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There were 28 construction workers who lost their lives. This was a 16-story apartment building under construction that collapsed entirely. The National Bureau of Standards conducted an investigation and attributed the collapse to the following:

“NBS found that the most probable cause of the collapse was the loss of support at a lifting jack in the west tower during placement of an upper-level package of three floor slabs. The loss of support was likely due to excessive deformation of the lifting angle in a shearhead followed by a lifting nut slipping off the lifting angle of the shearhead. The postulated failure mechanism was duplicated in laboratory experiments.”

More than three decades elapsed before the next tragic high-rise collapse during construction. The fallout from that is still roiling the city of New Orleans. On October 12, 2019 a building project slated to become the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans collapsed, killing 3 workers and seriously injuring 18 others.

The 18-story building was located at 1031 Canal Street. Workers had complained the month prior to the collapse of faulty design. The federal agency, OSHA, cited Heaslip Engineering LLC, Citadel Builders LLC, Suncoast Projects LLC – doing business as Hub Steel – and eight subcontractors for safety and health violations at the construction site.

OSHA’s investigation determined that Heaslip Engineering LLC failed to adequately design, review or approve steel bolt connections affecting the structural integrity of the building. Citadel Builders LLC, the site’s general contractor, was cited for three serious violations related to inadequate egress from the structure. OSHA cited steel erector contractor Suncoast Projects LLC for failing to maintain the structural stability of the building. The other subcontractors were cited by OSHA “for serious violations related to emergency egress training, inadequate egress, fall hazard training and safety hazards.” Total fines levied on all 11 companies were $315,536.

According to a local news report earlier this month, the families of the killed workers in New Orleans are calling for criminal charges to be brought against those responsible. The New Orleans Inspector General concluded an investigation that called for criminal charges but for reasons that aren’t clear, the results of that investigation have not been turned over to the District Attorney’s office. Raising suspicions among the families and residents is the fact that the lead investigator for the Inspector General, Kristen Morales, was suddenly suspended in December and then fired in January.

By far the most devastating loss of life thus far occurred at an existing high-rise on July 17, 1981 when the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel’s skywalks collapsed. The Hyatt Regency Hotel was a 40-story tower which had opened the prior year.

The hotel included a large atrium for large gatherings. On the date of the collapse, a tea dance was being held in the atrium and had attracted upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 people to the atrium and to the three pedestrian skywalks that were suspended above the atrium. Without warning, the second and fourth skywalks collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200.

According to the investigation conducted by the National Bureau of Standards, two factors were primarily responsible for the collapse:

“Inadequacy of the original design for the box beam-hanger rod connection, which was identical for all three walkways, and a change in hanger rod arrangement during construction that essentially doubled the load on the box-hanger rod connections at the fourth floor walkway. As originally approved for construction, the contract drawings called for a set of continuous hanger rods which would attach to the roof framing and pass through the fourth floor box beams and on through the second floor box beams. As actually constructed, two sets of hanger rods were used, one set extending from the fourth floor box beams to the roof framing and another set from the second floor box beams to the fourth floor box beams.”

The number of fatalities in the collapses described above do not include the 12 persons who have thus far been confirmed to have died in the Surfside condo collapse on June 24 of this year, with 149 more people missing and believed to be under the piles of concrete and rubble at the site for the past seven days.

The bottom line here: buildings in America do indeed fall down, and far too often because of negligent design, faulty construction and lack of proper local government oversight of these projects.

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