WASHINGTON — A federal agency staffed with some of the world’s preeminent chemists and engineers has conducted only four investigations into building failures in the past 20 years, each time when the loss of life is high or the cause couldn’t immediately be determined.
After it was given the authority to take on investigations following 9/11, the National Institute of Standards and Technology spent years looking into the 2001 World Trade Center collapse, which killed 2,763 people; the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire, which killed 100; the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado that killed 158; and it launched an ongoing investigation into Hurricane Maria in 2018, where more than 3,000 people died.
The Champlain Towers South condo collapse — where 11 people were confirmed dead as of Tuesday afternoon with 150 unaccounted for — is looking ever more likely to become the agency’s fifth.
“NIST was given the official responsibility to investigate a one-of-a-kind natural disaster where there is new science to be learned,” said former NIST director Dr. Willie May, a chemist and Barack Obama appointee who led the agency from 2014 to 2017. “If there was another event very similar to this, NIST would not get involved, because it needs to be a unique occurrence.”
Not many people can cite an event quite like the collapse of Champlain Towers South.
NIST isn’t an agency that specializes in disasters, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nor does it conduct investigations of deadly accidents that occur nearly every day around the country, like the National Transportation Safety Board. Instead, NIST is a research-focused body of 3,400 employees, including four Nobel Prize-winning physicists who developed the atomic clock, with a $1 billion annual budget.
The agency is called in only when an investigation is expected to yield major changes to standards or building codes. In the Champlain Towers South case, its work could prevent future tragedies in large buildings around the country.
NIST spokesperson Jennifer Huergo said the agency must follow established protocols to officially begin an investigation, but strongly hinted that the agency will act.
“We don’t have a strict timeline,” Huergo said in an interview Monday with the Miami Herald. “We expect [the experts in Surfside] will make a recommendation to the director of NIST. I don’t want people to worry that we’re not going to do something here. We just can’t pre-judge.”
The Surfside team will likely make a recommendation requesting the NIST director invoke the National Construction Safety Team Act, a law that would allow a formal investigation to begin. There’s also the possibility that NIST, which is part of the Commerce Department, will choose not to investigate or conduct a more limited study, which the agency did following the 2018 Camp fire in California and the 2009 collapse of the Dallas Cowboys’ tentlike practice facility.
Once the recommendation is made, the agency assembles a large team of scientists and other experts to begin years of painstaking work. The investigation must also include someone who isn’t under the agency’s authority, Huergo said.
Currently, the federal government has six scientists and engineers on the ground in Surfside — the first step of a potential rare, yearslong investigation with input from dozens of experts to determine why the 12-story oceanfront condo tower partially collapsed.
The team of NIST experts — including two structural engineers and a geotechnical engineer who specializes in soil and rock mechanics — has a mandate to investigate major disasters with an eye toward recommending changes to building codes that could help prevent future tragedies.
Huergo said the scientists currently on the ground in Surfside, who all arrived by Sunday evening, are there “to connect with the right people down there and identify information they may be able to pull into a full investigation” such as setting aside certain materials for closer inspection.
There are already calls from the White House for a formal federal probe into the collapse, though those calls haven’t specified which agencies should be involved. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that more than 50 federal personnel are in Surfside, including NIST experts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA.
“The goal, of course, is to get to the bottom of what happened, and of course, how to be an instructive guide on how to prevent it from happening in the future,” Psaki said.
Huergo and May said an NIST investigation would not determine if specific entities bear responsibility for the disaster, or any potential civil or criminal penalties. Instead, its inquiry would narrowly focus on using scientific expertise to determine why the structure collapsed, and use the findings to develop new guidelines and standards that allow the construction industry and rule-making bodies like the Miami-Dade County Commission to make changes.
“If you look at the World Trade Center as an example, basically NIST’s responsibility was to determine how and why the towers fell from a structural perspective,” May said. “I think we all know why they fell, but exactly what caused the fall from a mechanical perspective, what happened and are there new standards that might be informed by that event.”
May said in the World Trade Center case, tons of debris were transported to NIST laboratories for examination. In other cases, that may not be necessary.
But May said one thing is certain if NIST begins a formal investigation into the collapse: It will be years until its findings are finalized and made public.
“NIST is very deliberate. It’s not going to be completed in a few months if history is any indicator,” May said.
In the case of the Joplin tornado, the NIST final report from the May 2011 storm was released in March 2014. The recommendations, which involved the work of hundreds of experts, ranged from updated tornado-specific building codes to GPS-based mobile phone alerts for bad weather that are now commonplace around the country.
And NIST’s work continues after the formal investigation concludes. The agency released an update on Joplin last month, using the storm’s 10-year anniversary to follow up on the recommendations.
NIST doesn’t solely exist to conduct investigations. The agency, which was founded in 1901, conducts scientific and technical research along with establishing standards for time, weight and length.
Huergo said the agency has physicists and chemists who study concrete to measure its performance and how it ages over time. When they’re called into an investigation, some of those experts will shift roles for years until the work is complete.
“We’re not sitting around waiting for disasters,” Huergo said. “We have people who are always looking at concrete. We’re constantly looking at how do we better measure the performance of buildings and how do we make them better. So when there is an event like this, we shift research.”
Other federal agencies could launch separate investigations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, was in Surfside on Friday to determine whether the agency has the authority to investigate.
While NIST’s investigations are similar to the National Transportation Safety Board, an agency that investigates transportation-related accidents like the 2018 Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse, the NTSB conducts about 2,500 investigations a year compared to the four conducted by NIST in the past 20 years.
May, who now works for Morgan State University in Baltimore, said NIST’s approach is designed to advance scientific understanding of disasters, noting that every investigation yields a list of new recommendations that often lead to new standards and laws around the country. He said he was “grief-stricken” when watching video of the collapse, the likes of which he hadn’t seen since joining NIST in 1971.
“I was grief-stricken, like any human being would be who witnessed something like that,” May said. “I didn’t think of the World Trade Center or anything else. When I saw that clip and how devastating it was, I was concerned about the human toll.”
(Miami Herald reporter Dana Cassidy and McClatchy DC White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.)