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More than two months after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Fla., on June 24, a central question remains: How did this happen? An official investigation continues, but so far there are only theories and no official consensus on the cause.
To help readers understand more about the possible reasons for the building’s failure, one of the worst in U.S. history with 98 people killed, a Times team also began an investigation. Journalists from the Graphics and National desks, including two editors who are trained architects, collaborated to review the original designs and construct a 3-D model of the building. They also examined videos, engineering reports, 911 calls and photographs to glean details about what might have gone wrong.
Their reporting, published on Wednesday, shows that faulty design, inadequate waterproofing, code violations and construction flaws all could have contributed to the collapse.
“Many theories have been thrown out and our goal was to put all of that together and take you from level to level and sort of unfold this picture of what could have possibly gone wrong in the most comprehensive way possible,” said Haeyoun Park, an editor on the project.
Anjali Singhvi, a graphics editor and a former architect, started by looking at the video of the collapse.
Everyone whom the team spoke with said the way the building fell was highly unusual, Ms. Singhvi said. “Usually, if a structure fails,” she said, “it doesn’t completely collapse and you’re able to evacuate and save more people, but this just crashed within a few minutes.”
Ms. Singhvi noticed that it looked as if something around the base of the structure seemed to fail first. Along with the team, she and Mike Baker, a correspondent on the National desk, studied the original floor plans, which were released by the town of Surfside. The journalists focused on several different areas that seemed to contain flaws, including the pool deck, columns and roof.
But, it was a challenge, Ms. Singhvi said, to understand the architectural drawings without interviewing the original designers. So she and Mr. Baker spoke with experts including structural engineers, architects, geotechnical specialists, professors, lawyers and contractors, who answered questions about what the journalists were discovering and helped confirm they were reading the plans accurately.
“We tried to find experts who could speak to each individual problem or thing that stood out to us,” Ms. Singhvi said.
The graphics editors then produced a 3-D model using original design drawings, which allowed them to visualize the structural components of the building. They also spoke with residents and witnesses and reviewed over 1,000 pages of documents and drawings, which guided additional reporting.
For example, the team obtained a memo to residents from the building’s management recommending palm trees that were damaging the pipes should be removed from the pool deck. Planters that held the trees were not included in the original design drawings of the building but the team confirmed through satellite imagery that the objects were installed on the deck for a period of time and contributed tens of thousands of pounds of weight.
Mika Gröndahl, a graphics editor and a former architect who helped build the 3-D model, also reviewed the design plans, using information about the columns and beams from a number of floor plans and applying it to the model. He was able to create a clearer picture of how these structural elements, which are the load-bearing components of a building, interact and connect to one another.
“Being able to read the design drawings helps enormously,” he said. “Understanding the intent of the design is such an important part of the puzzle.”
The team then worked to translate the highly technical details it uncovered into an easily digestible graphic, said Weiyi Cai, a multimedia and graphics editor who created many of the visual components. She spent hours in meetings with the reporters and other graphics editors to understand the technical components and translate them for readers.
The editors started the article with an image of the building shot by a drone shortly after it collapsed. This image dissolves into the 3-D model, which then zeros in on the foundation. The editors introduce abstract concepts about the building’s structural integrity in short, simple paragraphs as readers scroll through the floors.
Ms. Cai said that she hoped there was a visual impact to seeing the Champlain Towers presented in this way and that the article “just really hammers that there are problems in this building from the very bottom to the top.”