As the search for survivors continues, questions are being raised about what caused a 12-storey apartment complex to collapse in Surfside, near Miami in Florida.

Experts gathering information at the scene will have to consider a range of possible causes – from structural defects to environmental influences – and whether a combination of factors may have triggered the sudden collapse of the 40-year-old block. 

Three more victims were discovered in the rubble of the collapsed building on Monday, July 5, after crews set off a string of explosives that brought down the last of the structure, allowing search efforts to resume.

Miami-Dade’s assistant fire chief, Raide Jadallah, told family members that the bodies of three more people had been found, raising the death toll to 27 people. More than 115 people remain unaccounted for.

The demolition opened up a previously unreachable area for rescuers, though the chances of finding any survivors there waned, the Miami-Dade county mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, said on NBC’s Today.

The 136-unit building was built in the early 1980s and was undergoing re-roofing works prior to the collapse. It is currently unknown if these works had any impact on the building's structural integrity that could have led to the catastrophe. 

8777 Collins Avenue before the collapse. Source: Google Streetview

These works were part of Florida's 40-year recertification process, as is required under the Miami-Dade County building code. This building code requires that non-conforming buildings undergo updates and improvement following legislation put into place after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. 

What is known at the time of the writing, is that the building has shown signs of subsidence in the past. A study last year by Shimon Wdowinski (a professor at Florida International University's Institute of Environment) showed that the building showed signs of sinking between the early and late 1990s at a rate of a few millimetres a year. 

What is important to note is that experts have long urged developers to take heed when building on the shifting sands of barrier islands – like in Miami Beach. However, once again, it is still unclear if the necessary engineering challenges of such an undertaking were not completed satisfactorily. 

It is important to note that Wdowinski does not believe this subsidence is the cause for the recent collapse, but may well have contributed to the problem itself. 

The condo building after the collapse. Source: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/Twitter

"If one part of the building moves with respect to the other, that could cause some tension and cracks," he explained to CNN.

Other condos in the area have a history of being shut down after they have failed similar inspections, said Peter Zalewski, principal of Condo Vultures.

“I’ve been here since 1993, and I’ve never seen something like this happen,” Zalewski told NBC. “You would think any problems that large would have been detectable. If recertification was being done, expect reports that say what problems currently exist in the building.”

Quite what the final cause of the collapse is determined to be is yet to be uncovered. But, it is very likely that similar buildings will now undergo fresh analyses and inspections in the aftermath of this tragedy. 

“At the end of the day,” Zalewski  added, “this is going to be a dramatic change for condos.”

What does the video show?

Video footage taken by a surveillance camera mounted on a neighbouring condominium shows that the building did not fall at once, but rather fell in stages.

First, the south-facing central section collapsed, before the north-facing central section followed just three seconds later. Five seconds after that, the east-facing section crumbled.

Some experts who have viewed the footage believe that the initial collapse was at the base of the building, around the pool area in front of the south-facing central section.

Reports say one resident, Cassie Stratton, was on the phone to her husband in the moments before the collapse looking out of the window. She told him: "Honey, the pool is caving in."

Aerial images of the aftermath show the decking area around the pool having collapsed into the underground car-parking area below.

Though it is far too early to be certain about the cause, the pool area was identified as a major area of concern in a structural report carried out in 2018, with reports that it had got much worse since then.

What were the issues raised in the 2018 inspection?

The 2018 inspection highlighted "a major error" in the original design of the apartment block.

The engineer, Frank Morabito, warned that the ground floor pool deck was not sloped to drain, so any water "sits on the waterproofing until it evaporates".

The report said the waterproofing below the ground floor pool deck and decorative planters was "beyond its useful life" and causing "major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas".

Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future would, it said, cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to "expand exponentially".

Morabito's report also referred to "abundant cracking… of columns, beams and walls" in the basement parking garage below the complex.

However, the report didn't suggest the 40-year-old building was at any imminent risk of collapse but urged that the concrete repairs be carried out in "a timely fashion".

Earlier this year, the president of the condominium association warned residents that the damage in the parking area had got "significantly worse" and repairs needed to the whole building had risen from US$9m (£6.6m) to more than US$15m.

Jean Wodnicki told residents the concrete deterioration was accelerating and the roof situation was also much worse, according to the letter published by the New York Times.

Morabito Consultants have said that at the time of the collapse, roof repairs were under way but concrete restoration had not yet begun. 

How could concrete damage affect the building? 

Structural engineer, Greg Batista, who has carried out thousands of inspections of buildings in Florida, said damage to the concrete was one possible explanation for the collapse.

"These buildings up and down the coast are susceptible to what we call spalling," he told the BBC.

"Basically, the reinforcing steel inside the concrete, it basically rusts and it expands up to seven times its volume. The concrete that surrounds it breaks and that causes significant deterioration in the structural integrity of that particular member, whether it's a beam or a column. All it takes is one beam or one column to fail and it causes a domino effect."

Did land movement contribute?

A study from researchers at Florida International University published last year found that the building was sinking at a rate of about two millimetres per year in the 1990s.

Lots of movement underneath buildings can cause cracking and contribute to structural problems.

Professor Shimon Wdowinski said the study did not focus on Champlain Towers South in particular, but the building stood out as one of the places that showed the most subsidence.

He said it was not much, but the study was more than 20 years ago and "we do not know what happened after 1999, at what level it continued to sink, if it continued to sink, and how this may have affected its foundations".

"Maybe a point was reached where the structure couldn't hold the load and collapsed. But this is a structural problem. They are not things that I study," he told BBC Mundo, the BBC's Spanish language news service.

"What we do know is that the building that collapsed in Miami has been sinking for decades, but that alone does not explain the collapse."

Could new building work be a factor?

Some people believe it is possible that vibrations from the recent construction of the adjacent 18-storey tower block – Eighty Seven Park – may have caused some ground movement.

Champlain Towers South residents raised concerns in 2019 that they had felt movement and shaking during the construction work, but were told to monitor the situation.

Are other buildings at risk of collapse?

Champlain Towers South was built on reclaimed wetland in 1981. Most blocks along the coast, and high-rise buildings elsewhere, are built on pile foundations, using columns of concrete and steel to transfer the load of the building into the ground. A short distance away is Champlain Towers North, built to an almost identical design.

Residents are seeking reassurance that their buildings do not face similar problems and local authorities have ordered checks to be carried out.

When will we know the cause?

Atorod Azizinamini, director of Moss School of Construction, Infrastructure and Sustainability at Florida International University, said the investigation into the Champlain Towers South collapse would take time.

He said structural engineers would look at design plans, how the building was constructed, take samples of steel and concrete, look at signs of corrosion, the foundations and if any unusual event took place before the collapse.

Once they have the information they can simulate different scenarios and pinpoint how the collapse took place, he said.

Federal investigators are at the site and working to find the cause of the collapse and ensure evidence is preserved. Debris is being taken to a large warehouse to be examined. 

Robert Frosch, a professor of civil engineering and senior associate dean of engineering for facilities and operations at Purdue University, said: “The condo building in Florida experienced what’s called a ‘progressive collapse,’ which is similar to what happened to the World Trade Center. When a floor collapses, the weight of that slab doubles the weight of the floor below it. This type of failure is extremely rare. We have provisions in the building code to minimise the risk of this type of failure.” 

Rodrigo Salgado, Purdue’s Charles Pankow Professor of Civil Engineering, said: “There were reports of cracks in the superstructure of the condo building and possibly some foundation movement. Cracks can be a cause or a symptom of building pathology. If you have cracks opening up, water can get in, corrode steel reinforcement, and that may lead to failure. But if you start getting movement at the foundation, those movements distort the building, and that leads to cracking. Excessively wide cracks, particularly in certain locations, are an indicator of a structure in distress.”