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Structural Engineer Who Investigated 9/11 Looks For Answers In Surfside Collapse


President Biden visited a memorial this afternoon for the victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Fla. The search and rescue operation, which was suspended early this morning, has now resumed again this evening. And as we wait for more updates on the search and for answers about why the tower collapsed, the town of Surfside has hired the structural engineer who investigated the 9/11 attacks to help uncover how this all happened. His name is Allyn Kilsheimer, and he joins us now from Surfside. Welcome.

ALLYN KILSHEIMER: Thank you. Hello.

CHANG: OK, so let's just first talk about why the search and rescue effort was suspended overnight. There were concerns that the rest of the building might come down. What can you tell us about that?

KILSHEIMER: There was - one of the hanging columns on the outside face of the building that had partially collapsed moved for some reason. It could have been wind. It could have been lots of things. So the thing is to make sure that the building that it was still attached to wasn't starting to fall because if it did, it would fall, A, onto the pile where the guys are all working, and it could further collapse the garage underneath that pile.

CHANG: OK. So what are some of the key things that you will be looking for as you're trying to figure out what exactly contributed to this collapse last week?

KILSHEIMER: Well, we got here Friday, and we started then doing what we're doing, which is, whenever we get called in to a collapse - and we don't just do things where bombs and planes hit things. We do collapses that just happen. And I come up with, you know, 20 or 30 things that I think might cause something like that, and then we begin doing computer program - engineering computer programs and models and taking the original drawings and evaluating the original design based on what they were supposed to be able to accommodate. We look at the foundation systems. We look at all that stuff. And then we eliminate the causes that we can prove were not part of the collapse.

When we're doing that, we generally will come up with more ideas as we uncover things. We do material sampling of pieces of the building. We look at the concrete and the reinforcing steel and the soil and the foundations and all that kind of stuff. What you're looking for is a trigger 'cause every building - there's not one that I've been involved in, which is probably 40 - more than $40 billion worth - that there aren't mistakes that are done when it's being built. There aren't mistakes that are done while it's being designed. In buildings we design, we make mistakes, you know, 'cause you just can't do everything perfectly.

But the idea is, whatever those things that might have been going wrong in the building were going wrong, it stood there for 40 years. Something was the trigger that set it off. And so the idea is to try and find the trigger or at least get it down to two or three possible triggers and then begin looking at, well, if this one thing that was wrong wouldn't have been wrong, would this trigger still have caused the problem? So it's...

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - because over the past week, documentation has surfaced showing that town officials, to some extent, knew of structural concerns and did not take immediate actions. Based on what you have seen so far, is it clear that officials and the condo association should have done more and done it sooner to address the need for repairs?

KILSHEIMER: Based on the information that I have seen so far, I don't think there was anything as a structural engineer that would tell me the building was in imminent danger of collapse. And the way condominiums usually work, they don't have a bunch of money, and so they get the money from the residents, the owners. And usually they try and say, let's do this much this year, this much next year, this much in the year after. So they take it out of their budgets. And the engineers or architects that are helping them figure out what to do tell them what, in their mind, are the priorities of what ought to be done, so they do them in a staged event.

CHANG: All right. That is Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer who is now helping with the effort in Surfside, Fla. Thank you very much for your time today.

KILSHEIMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ashish Valentine
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.