‘Lives would have been saved’: Fire alarms didn’t go off before Fla. tower collapse

Seven minutes before the Champlain Towers collapsed, the pool deck's fall triggered a building alarm system distress call to the alarm company, which should have set off condo units' alarms

Sarah Blaskey and Nicholas Nehamas
Miami Herald

MIAMI — When the pool deck at Champlain Towers South collapsed early on the morning of June 24, the building’s fire alarm system quickly sent out a distress signal to its alarm company.

It was 1:15 a.m. — seven minutes before half of the 12-story tower came crashing down and killed 98 people.

Search and rescue personnel worked on June 27 at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla.
Search and rescue personnel worked on June 27 at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla. (Photo/David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service)

But in that crucial seven-minute span between the pool deck collapsing and the tower failing, no klaxons, sirens or warnings seem to have gone off in the building’s condo units, hallways or lobby, according to a review of audio and video footage and interviews with more than a dozen residents and workers — raising questions about a possible failure or malfunction of the system.

“There was no alarm,” said unit owner Iliana Monteagudo. “That would’ve woken everyone up.”

A Ring camera that turned on in the condo above Monteagudo’s just seconds before the tower collapsed picked up the sounds of small chunks of plaster falling from the ceiling — but no blaring alarms.

Had alarms gone off on every floor at 1:15 a.m. — alerting residents in the doomed part of the tower to a crisis and perhaps giving them time to escape — at least some people may have survived, even if others lingered in their condos, thinking it was a false alarm, experts said.

“Obviously, seven minutes is a long time. If [the alarms] went off and people followed the directions, that could have been crucial,” said William Bryson, a former fire chief for the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County.

Cassie Stratton woke up from the thunderous crash of the pool deck but did not know whether to evacuate. Stratton died minutes later when the tower failed as she was talking on the phone with her husband, Mike. There was no alarm sounding, Mike Stratton said.

“If she heard it, she would have said something to me,” he told the Herald. “She just felt the rumbling.”

Dozens of other residents were crushed to death in their sleep.

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The Herald exclusively obtained a “customer activity report” for Champlain Towers’ alarm system. It shows that a fire alarm signal was recorded at 1:15 a.m. and that the building’s alarm monitoring company, Central Alarm Control, called 911 soon after.

The initial triggering of the alarm system should have set off loud alarms in the entire tower, said Jeffrey Zwirn, a forensic alarm expert who reviewed the report and records about Champlain Towers’ fire system. Zwirn said that the collapse of the pool deck — which video shows ripped open pipes — would have automatically activated the alarm system when it damaged the sprinkler system.

“That should then have triggered a voice-evacuation alarm in every unit,” Zwirn said, adding that the system may have been improperly programmed.

Gary Rainey, a retired Miami-Dade Fire Rescue lieutenant who spent 35 years with the department, said the Champlain Towers system could also have suffered a “malfunction or failure of some kind” either before or during the pool deck collapse.

“I can’t think of a good reason why it would notify the alarm company and not the people living in the building,” Rainey said. “I have seen places where there’s lots of false alarms in the building and people try to mitigate that. But it’s a violation of the fire code to disable the fire alarm.”

Even after the tower collapsed, those lucky enough to live in the part of the building that stayed standing were awakened by the deafening implosion of concrete, not alarms.

Albert and Janette Aguero rushed down 11 flights of stairs after the crash. They didn’t hear a single alarm, not in their unit or any other part of the tower.

“It never went off,” Aguero said.

Hallandale Beach-based Premier Fire Alarms and Integration Systems installed the system in 2017.

In a brief phone conversation Friday and subsequent text messages, Matthew Haiman, Premier’s president, said that the company’s system had worked properly and threatened to sue the Herald if it published a story.

“We have the records,” Haiman said, although he said he would not show them to reporters.

“Go f--- yourself,” he added. “Print your fake news.”

The company has been issued a notice of subpoena in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of survivors, victims and their relatives, according to court records.

Two residents told the Herald they did hear an alarm — but only after the tower had already fallen at 1:22 a.m, which would likely have triggered the system again.

“We heard [an] explosion that shook our apartment,” said Alfredo Lopez, who lived on the sixth floor. “The light went out and I heard the alarm go on. There was a siren from the [emergency] speaker in our unit. I believe it said, ‘Please evacuate immediately.’ “

Lopez said he didn’t remember hearing any other alarms in the rest of the building as he and his family fled to safety down an emergency stairwell.

Daniela Silva was falling asleep when the pool deck collapsed, waking her up. She said she heard no alarms at that time. It was not until around 1:30 a.m., she said, several minutes after the tower fell, that the emergency speaker in her unit went off and, following its instructions, she escaped.

“It was very loud. A lady’s voice,” she said. “It absolutely would have woken me up [if it had gone off before].”

Police body-camera footage from several minutes after the tower collapsed appears to show a strobing light going off in the lobby and another in the garage. Albert Aguero said that flashing lights on fire alarms and exit signs helped him and his family navigate their way out of the building after the collapse. But the devices never produced sounds, he said.

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A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said the department did not know if the alarms sounded before the tower collapsed.

What went wrong isn’t yet clear.

Champlain Towers’ fire alarm system was far newer than the rest of the nearly 40-year-old building, which was beset by design flaws and construction errors. The alarm system had been replaced in 2017 after the long-outdated, original setup failed an inspection.

But the replacement system wasn’t perfect, records suggest.

“Champlain Tower South has been working on the alarm systems. Our experience with the provider has been less tha[n] acceptable,” CTS board member Mara Chouela wrote in a 2018 email to Surfside’s then-building official Ross Prieto. (Chouela did not respond to requests for comment.)

Two years later, Champlain Towers’ management emailed residents that a recent false alarm in the middle of the night was caused by “a faulty pull station located in the lobby area.”

When the pool deck collapsed, resident Sara Nir was in the building lobby. Panicked, she told the security guard to activate a pull station. It’s not clear if that pull station was the same one that had malfunctioned the year before. The customer activity report shows only one fire alarm signal going to the alarm company — and there’s no indication whether that signal came from the pull station or from the sprinkler system in the garage. (Nir’s son, Gabe, said he did not hear alarms in the lobby or the family’s apartment.)

Premier’s successful bid to replace the old system at Champlain Towers came in at $119,000 — the second lowest of four proposals submitted to the condo board. An even lower bid of $90,000 was described as “not … serious” in board documents. The higher bids were for $152,290 and $168,680.

The condo association only had $100,000 in its fire-alarm fund to pay for the new system and had to dip into another reserve to cover the difference, internal board records show.

After Champlain Towers signed its contract, Premier informed the association that it would have to install additional equipment required by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue at a cost of $14,000.

Now survivors are left wondering how the deadly night could have unfolded differently.

“If the alarm had gone off [earlier], lives would have been saved,” said resident Raysa Rodriguez, who scrambled to escape after being woken up by the terrifying boom of the tower falling. “It was eerie quiet when I ran out the front door to check what was going on. There was no alarm.”

Rodriguez said the building had tested its alarm system in recent months, including making loud emergency announcements over speakers that had been installed in every unit and would later alert Lopez and Silva to evacuate after the tower collapsed.

Rodriguez knows the speaker in her condo would have woken her up had it gone off when the pool deck fell.

But that night, she said, “mine didn’t make a sound.”


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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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