MIAMI — Just a few years before structural engineer Sergio Breiterman signed off on the construction work at Champlain Towers South Condominium, he vouched for a new municipal building in Coral Gables that, within months of completion, “leaked like a sieve,” “smelled like wet dog,” and developed cracks in the garage because of a dangerous construction flaw, records from the city and newspaper articles from the time show.
In 1972, Breiterman’s engineering company, Breiterman, Jurado & Associates, was hired by Coral Gables’ architect Klements and Associates to provide structural engineering expertise on a new, five-story Public Safety Building, including an attached garage. Breiterman also performed inspections during the $5 million construction effort to ensure that everything was up to code and built according to the approved building plans, a Miami Herald article published in 1976 said.
But Breiterman overlooked at least one critical and potentially life-threatening construction defect — insufficient steel reinforcements in parts of the concrete structure, the article said.
Although he wasn’t responsible for placing the rebar, five engineering experts consulted by The Miami Herald said that as the inspecting engineer on the project one of Breiterman’s primary jobs would have been ensuring that all rebar was placed correctly before the contractor pouring the concrete around it. If it wasn’t there, he and the contractor were responsible, all five agreed.
A recent article by The New York Times on the Champlain Towers collapse compared building plans to photos of the debris and found some evidence to suggest a similar construction deficiency in the reinforcement that could have contributed to the catastrophic collapse. If there was insufficient reinforcement in the concrete, Breiterman didn’t catch it there either.
In October 1980, Surfside records show Breiterman had certified that “the structural portions of the (Champlain Towers) project comply with the requirements of the approved drawings and specifications and the South Florida Building Code.”
Hairline cracks in the third and fourth floor of the garage attached to the Coral Gables building that would house the police and fire departments were discovered just months after the building’s completion in 1975, the Herald reported in an article dated Jan. 8, 1976. A subsequent excavation of one of the garage’s half-walls revealed missing rebar. Scans of the Coral Gables parking garage taken in early 1976 revealed only about half as much reinforcing steel in the walls as was called for in the plans — a deficiency that could have resulted in drivers plummeting to their deaths if they bumped the wall with their cars, according to a chronicle of the saga from the Herald archives.
“The designs were fine,” J. Martin Gainer, city manager during the ordeal, was quoted saying. “The contractor just didn’t follow all the plans.”
A spokesperson for the New York-based contractor, Edward L. Nezelek Inc., told the Herald at the time that missing rebar was a “common error, not a big deal. Somebody just didn’t put them in.”
Breiterman told the Herald at the time that he could not remember if he had inspected that part of the construction work. The four-foot-high parapet walls were not a “basic part of the structure like slabs and beams,” he said, so he was not sure if they had been part of his inspection duties.
“That’s B.S.” said Gene Santiago, a structural engineer and retired building inspector in South Florida who reviewed the news clips and original building plans. “That wall prevents the car from going over and killing somebody or killing yourself. That wall should have been designed for that load.”
Santiago wasn’t the only engineer interviewed by the Herald to use that exact epithet in response to Breiterman’s effort to deny responsibility for ensuring rebar was placed correctly in the wall.
“For somebody to say the wall is not a structural element, that’s bullsh—,” said structural engineer and general contractor Greg Batista.
Even though the half-walls don’t support the structure’s weight, they are an important safety feature and “absolutely a structural element” that requires an engineer’s review, agreed Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale contractor and attorney who reviewed the news articles and the building’s original structural plans.
From a legal standpoint, Schlesinger said, the contractor would bear the most liability for a structure built incorrectly. But Breiterman, as the inspecting engineer, would be directly responsible for ensuring rebar was installed the right way, he said.
“It’s a bad comment on this guy,” Schlesinger said of the news articles. “It shows the guy is negligent and somewhat lazy.”
Breiterman, who died in 1990, and his company, Breiterman, Jurado & Associates, which no longer exists, is the only overlap between the Champlain Towers construction and the Public Safety Building at 2801 Salzedo St.
The reporting on the problem in Coral Gables did not clarify where the missing rebar was located or how what remained was distributed. But a photograph included in the 1976 story appears to show just two bars in a “tie column” supporting a part of the fourth-floor wall where plans called for four, Schlesinger said.
“No one should miss this,” he said. “This is super simple construction.”