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Corrosion experts notice things most people miss. Whether one is situated on a bridge, a ship, or a lamppost, a little rust may be overlooked, but a corrosion professional sees the cause or imminent damage of that rust.
In this three-part series, Byron Evetts provides his perspective on the Champlain Towers South recovery effort and wreckage in the days after the devastating collapse.
A Corrosion Engineer and First Responder
On June 24, 2021, Byron Evetts saw the footage of the Champlain Towers South collapse and prepared his rescue gear, knowing he would be called to help in Surfside, Florida, USA. It would be his 27th deployment as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) or State of Florida Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) disaster response task force.
Evetts’ team was on its way to help with North America’s biggest accidental building collapse, and he knew he could be called any moment. What he did not know was that after 25 years as a US&R specialist, this particular search and rescue experience would be his last.
When Evetts began his career with a marine engineering firm, he quickly recognized that honing his corrosion knowledge and skills would open doors to more career opportunities. In 1981, he joined the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE)—now known as AMPP, the Association for Materials Protection and Performance—where he worked his way through courses and exams to earn his Cathodic Protection Specialist and Protective Coating Specialist certifications. For the last 20 years he has run his own company, Existing Structures Engineering in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which focuses on existing structures engineering.
“Everything we work on already has a flaw or an issue, typically corrosion,” says Evetts.
His start with urban search and rescue came in 1996 when a neighbor of his traveled to the Oklahoma City bombing site at the Arthur Murrow building as a US&R specialist.
“When I saw him on the cover of a magazine it piqued my interest, so I spoke to my neighbor and learned more about the program,” says Evetts. “Not long after that I was drafted as a ‘Structure Specialist,’ which means someone who’s completed advanced training and willing to go into very dangerous places to do building assessment, building triage, and building stabilization.”
Evetts’ first deployment was to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta just prior to the Centennial Olympic Bombings. In November of that year, he was sent on a US&R mission after a gas explosion collapsed Puerto Rico’s multi-story Humberto Vidal building, killing 33 people.
Since then, he has been deployed after every major U.S. hurricane and several other disasters. His volunteer work and expertise have contributed to numerous aid efforts and have exposed him to the devastation and destruction wreaked upon countless homes, lives, and communities.
“When I got the call in June, I immediately knew my US&R team was headed to what would become North America’s biggest accidental collapse in history,” says Evetts. “We’ve got some math we do as US&R specialists and based on the building being in South Florida in summertime, we estimated that maybe 20 to 30 people could have died. When we found out the building was mainly occupied, and we realized it would likely be many more, it was a tough moment.”
“Engineers like us who do this US&R work are all civilians, and some of us have fire department training,” says Evetts. Each member of Evetts’ US&R team was a professional engineer—a few of whom had fire department credentials, and another was a reserve law enforcement officer. “I’d just retired from my local volunteer fire department after 22 years. Between us, we each had one toe in emergency services.”
“Because of the nature of the disaster, our team knew there would be only body recovery.
When I went down to relieve one of my colleagues, my team was working the night shift. Our primary job was to focus on the pile to make sure it didn’t shift horribly. And we also had to focus on the building next door because it was the same design, same construction, and the same age as Champlain Towers South, only now it was damaged.”
Urban Search and Rescue at Champlain Towers South
“Typically, the safety radius for something like this would be 150% of the height of the damaged building,” explains Evetts. “In this case, that would have put us working somewhere out by the sand on the beach and nowhere near where we were searching for the victims. We had to dramatically shorten that safety radius, so we spent a lot of time using specialized equipment to monitor the standing building.”
The high-tech equipment used for this type of operation is called a total station, which instantly provides three coordinates down to a millimeter. “We had three of those stations manned 24/7, along with other sophisticated operations going on,” says Evetts. “Since people couldn’t enter the standing damaged building safely, we flew an advanced drone inside the structure to take photos, which we then used to compare to the previous days’ photos to check for additional cracking.”
According to Evetts and several corrosion engineers interviewed by AMPP, typically a catastrophic failure like the one in Surfside would be the culmination of multiple failures, not a single cause. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is taking a meticulous approach to its own investigation of the Champlain Towers collapse, which is expected to take years to complete.
In November 2021, NIST noted that it has a substantial number of evidentiary specimens to analyze before the team can begin to determine the cause.
In the meantime, surviving residents of the Champlain Towers, as well as the families of those lost in the collapse, are left with no answers; as are building owners, insurers, high-rise residents, and others looking to prevent another disaster like this. As the investigation continues, engineers, contractors, and others have studied photos and residents’ accounts, which would indicate that some sort of failure was inevitable.
Impressions of Possible Design Weaknesses
Although Evetts and his fellow US&R team members weren’t brought on site as forensic engineers, their engineering backgrounds make them naturally curious. As they focused on the recovery effort, they couldn’t help but look for answers in everything around them.
While working at the incident site, Evetts spoke to many others who were concerned by things they noticed among the debris. “Some of the ‘rock breakers’ [Rescue Specialists] said the concrete was softer than training concrete…” said Evetts. “We pour very weak concrete during training. They’ve all broken rocks in other buildings, and they felt like there was something wrong with the strength of the concrete. Add that to the fact that the building may have been under-designed, throw in corrosion, and you possibly have a formula for a catastrophic collapse.”
Evetts remembered looking at some of the balcony edges, and even after they’d collapsed, they were wholly intact. He recalls, “Some of the rebar I saw looked like it had light corrosion but nothing dramatic. We did notice an anomaly with the pool deck, which has gotten a lot of attention.”
“One of the engineers pointed out that it was missing some ‘negative bending moment’ reinforcing bars. We also noticed where someone had put pavers down on the pool deck with a non-structural sand on concrete topping. We wondered if they were just stacking up more and more dead load, causing the failure to start over by the pool deck. But I still can’t wrap my head around how the collapse of an elevated pool deck would pull down the whole building.”
After other engineering failures such as the Florida International University (FIU) pedestrian bridge collapse in University Park in 2018 and the fatal Berkman Plaza II Parking Garage collapse in Jacksonville in 2007, Evetts worries that not enough is being done to prevent these avoidable disasters.
“FIU was an engineering collapse, because it was dramatically under-designed just like the Berkman parking garage, and that’s a lesson to all engineers that computers are “GIGO” [garbage in, garbage out],” says Evetts.
“If you rely on your least experienced staff member to do the work just by filling in data on a computer, you’re not engaging in engineering best practices,” he adds. “If you rely on your least experienced staff member to do the work just by filling in data on a computer, you’re not capturing engineering best practices. Nobody is going to check the computer data by hand, by slide rule, by old analog calculator. Just jamming something into a computer and letting it create the drawings is not engaging in good due diligence… it’s proving to be inadequate.”
“There are other buildings in the Southeast that appear to be in worse shape than Champlain Towers,” he says. Having worked in Florida and the Southeast for decades, Evetts notices vulnerabilities in structures all over the state and is concerned about the efficacy of local building inspections, which he and many other engineers consider to be insufficient.
Part two of this series will be made available in May. For more subject-matter expertise, visit www.ampp.org.