Inside the aftermath of the Surfside collapse: An AMPP Member’s Story

Corrosion experts notice things most people miss. Whether it’s 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 a 3-part series in Materials Performance Magazine, Byron Evetts provides his perspective on the Champlain Towers South recovery effort and wreckage in the days after the devastating collapse. 

Note: The article below includes excerpts from a 3-part series originally published in Materials Performance Magazine:
Part 1Part 2Part 3

A Corrosion Engineer and First Responder
Evetts (1)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. 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. 

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.

His start with urban search and rescue came in 1996. “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,” says Evetts. 

“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.” 

Each member of Evetts’ US&R team was a professional engineer— a few 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, we knew there would be only body recovery. 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.”

USAR retirement photo Evetts

Urban Search and Rescue at Champlain Towers South
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 Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) is taking a meticulous approach to its years-long investigation of the Champlain Towers collapse. 

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. They couldn’t help but look for answers in everything around them. 

While working at the incident site, Evetts and many others shared concerns about 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.”   

Preventable Disasters
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. 

Engineers have been puzzled by the 40-year inspection rule in Dade and Broward County. Throughout his career, Evetts’ work has covered territory extending from Hawaii to Aruba to Africa, and up and down the east coast of Florida. “We have not seen a single building in my service area that could go 40 years without undergoing its first major maintenance,” he said. 

Since the Surfside tragedy, Evetts and other corrosion experts are most concerned about the lack of focus on corrosion control. 

“It's almost criminal that we don't require more corrosion control measures such as the use of inhibitors in concrete, and in some cases the use of cathodic protection systems built into the concrete,” said Evetts. 

Finding insight into building condition—what building owners should be doing
According to Evetts, a building’s maintenance staff may be the first to notice something as seemingly harmless as rust stains running from the bottom of a balcony, a cracked beam in the garage, or something that may indicate deeper structural issues. “Once anyone points out ‘rust bleed,’ or once you’re seeing rust leak in a pattern, these signs represent corrosion of the embedded reinforcing bar,” said Evetts. “That means it’s time to do something.”

In cautioning condo owners and their associations, Evetts offers the following recommendations: “If you see signs of corrosion, or if you are aware that corrosion is down to the rebar depth, bring in an expert to check it out. At this point, repairs become an engineering process, and you’ll need qualified engineers with restoration on existing structures credentials. 

“You want to use people who have worked on these buildings before, people who understand NACE, SSPC, ACI (American Concrete Institute) and ICRI (International Concrete Repair Institute) coatings and specifications. This is what engineers do. This is what I want people to know so they can make safe decisions.”

“Once you see rust… it’s time to start reacting.”


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Featured image courtesy of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

All other images courtesy of Byron Evetts.