Humans are by nature cautious. We are the descendants of those who fled at the snap of a twig, not those who shrugged and told themselves, “That can’t be a saber-toothed tiger coming; I’ll just keep eating these delicious berries ...”
Even today, when we read stories of tragedy, the tendency is to try to distance ourselves from whatever bad thing is going on: that’s far away, happening to very different people under very different circumstances than our own.
Which is why Thursday’s collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, with some 150 residents missing, buried in the rubble, can be so terrifying to Chicagoans who live in apartment buildings: it’s hard to dismiss as a Florida phenomenon.
“I have a bad feeling in my gut about this and those sort of buildings in Chicago,” wrote one reader who lived for years in a high-rise on Sheridan Road. “Chicago has the additional worries of corruption of inspectors and building materials quality in addition to the weather concerns.”
That’s quite a charge, and I wouldn’t pass it along if I didn’t remember “Operation Crooked Code,” in 2008, when the feds probed bribery in Chicago’s buildings and zoning departments, coming up with a dozen convictions.
Immediately after the collapse, the Department of Buildings pointed out, “Chicago has one of the strictest building codes in the country.” Correct, if disingenuous. The issue isn’t whether those strict codes exist, but were they enforced when a building was constructed? Or did the inspector look the other way?
Be reassured. Despite its reputation for corruption, Chicago is not home to many notorious building failures, the way it has seen a number of historically horrible fires. We did have our previous City Hall/County Building complex settle six inches on a single day (due to shoddy materials used in its foundation), sever its gas lines and explode. But that was back in 1905.
The only relatively recent building failure that leaps to mind isn’t a collapse, but the Amoco Building, which had no sooner opened in 1974 when the 82-story structure began to shed its skin of white Carrara marble. In its first dozen years, about a third of the 43,000 marble panels buckled outward. Panels also started to pop out and crash dramatically to the street below. The entire skin of the building, now Aon Center, had to be replaced at a cost approaching that of constructing the building itself.
What went wrong? The marble panels were half an inch too thin.
“There is no question about the reduced thickness of the panels being a major contributory cause of their failure,” Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori write in their 1992 book “Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail.”
As engineers puzzle over what could have caused the Surfside collapse — a 2018 report citing “major structural damage” offers a few likely suspects — I pulled down this handy volume to search for clues.
One intriguing section is titled “The Florida Pancake” and tells of a 25-story hotel and condominium complex where engineers studied the soil at the site and determined that piles had to be 30 feet deep to support the structure.
“The ordered piles were being driven into the ground at column locations when suddenly the operation had to be stopped,” the authors write, “because a pile had disappeared into the soil after the last drop of the pile driver’s weight! An inspection of the hole at that particular spot showed that the soil was Florida pancake, weakly supported by loose sand saturated with water.”
The coastal soil is so varied, they observed, that knowing the conditions of Point A is not a reliable guide to nearby Point B.
“Had it not been for the disappearing pile (and one might not have disappeared only a few feet away), a catastrophe might have ensued.”
A catastrophe such as the one that occurred in Florida last week. The 2018 report cites cracking and crumbling columns, beams and walls in the condo’s underground parking garage. The sort of warning too easy to ignore, until a building falls down. Gravity, time, water, wind are not trifling forces, and it might be good to remember that nature always wins, in the end. The only question is whether we are doing all we can to keep her at bay until then.