Raysa Rodriguez recounts a harrowing escape from her unit at the collapsed Surfside condominium, and lays out mounting warning signs in a newly filed lawsuit.
Among them: a concrete chunk that had fallen from the garage ceiling and a “wide crack” above her parking space. In her suit, which seeks class action status, Rodriguez also cites flooding in the underground garage dating back at least a decade that was reported by a former maintenance manager.
Two days before the collapse, a contractor who was jarred by the garage flooding, cracks and corrosion, alerted a building staff member. The staff member responded that water was pumped from the basement so often that pump motors were replaced every two years, according to the complaint.
Rodriguez, a retired postal worker who was close to paying off her mortgage for her ninth-floor unit in the part of the building that did not cave in, sued the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. It marks the third suit against the association following the deadly collapse.
Unit owners Manuel Drezner and Steve Rosenthal each have also filed lawsuits against the association.
Rodriguez photographed problems she witnessed and sent the photos to the association. The disrepair adds to an array of issues discovered at the building before its oceanfront portion pancaked at roughly 1:30 a.m. Thursday. More than 140 people remain missing and 16 are confirmed dead as of Wednesday afternoon, as the search and rescue mission continues.
According to Rodriguez’s complaint, too many signs were ignored over the years.
The association “had many, many reports and indications that there were serious indications that something was wrong. And they kept kicking the can down the road,” said Adam Schwartzbaum, Rodriguez’s attorney who filed the lawsuit. “There were many warning signs and they didn’t fulfill their duty to keep this building safe and fit for human residence.”
Schwartzbaum added that the condo association is not the only one at fault, and other defendants will be added, as the investigation unfolds.
State attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has called for a grand jury to be empaneled to investigate the cause of collapse.
Drezner, who lived in the building, but was not at home at the time of the collapse, filed his lawsuit the evening of the collapse, also seeking class action status. Rosenthal, who was home and escaped, but still has friends missing, sued on Saturday.
The association would not address the two latest suits’ claims, with a spokesperson citing pending litigation. The association will continue to work with officials “to understand the causes of this tragedy” and to care for “our friends and neighbors during this difficult time,” the spokesperson said via email.
Rodriguez was awakened by the collapse, escaping with some of her neighbors. After opening the doors to an exit that would take her to the outdoor stairwell, she was faced with the devastation. “The beachside of Champlain had collapsed, pancaked. I screamed in horror,” she said, according to the complaint. She had lived at Champlain since 2003.
Rodriguez’s suit points to factors that could have contributed to or warned of the impending calamity. This includes heavy equipment and materials on the roof, which “may have added substantial weight onto the roof,” and the construction of Eighty Seven Park next door. Residents had complained of “grounds shaking” while that condo tower was being built two years earlier.
The Terra-led entity that developed Eighty Seven Park said in a statement that, “We are confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse.”
A reroofing was also underway as part of Champlain Towers South’s 40-year recertification. JJI Supply, led by Debra and Edward Campany, were hired to re-roof the building. The Campanys did not respond to requests for comment.
Former Champlain maintenance manager William Espinosa recalled after the collapse that during his time working at the building, from 1995 to 2000, the garage would sometimes have “a concerning amount of seawater” at high tide, with up to two feet pooling for “extensive time” before it drains, according to Rodriguez’s complaint. Building management did not investigate after Espinosa’s warning, and the association’s “response was to merely tell Espinosa that the issue had been occurring for years,” according to the complaint.
By allowing the seawater to pool in the garage, the association essentially let the building “sit on a time bomb,” as it is widely known that seawater corrodes concrete, the suit says.
The complaint also points to lawsuits filed in 2001 and 2015 by another resident against the association over water entering her unit through cracks in the outside wall. “The very existence of these actions demonstrates how reckless” the association was over the building’s issues, the suit says. The resident who filed the previous suits survived the collapse.
In addition, the complaint cites engineer Frank Morabito’s 2018 report that identified “major structural damages,” adding that “the effect of deterioration on buildings results in loss of strength and safety.”
The complaint states that the association “for years, did not show any effort to prevent the serious issues the building was facing.”
No major repairs were completed after the 2018 report, other than the reroofing that began in April. In all, unit owners were facing more than $15 million in repairs.
Rodriguez’s complaint includes the original and amended condominium documents that state the association is responsible for maintenance, repairs and replacements of the common areas and elements, as well as the exterior walls, which is standard language for such condo documents.
The association is led by president Jean Wodnicki, who survived the collapse. In an April letter to unit owners she underlined the importance of completing the repairs to the building. Wodnicki wrote of “observable damage,” including in the underground garage that “has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection.”
“A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by,” she added in her letter. “But this is where we are now.”