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New podcast examines what went wrong to lead to the Surfside condominium collapse

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

It's been almost a year since people in South Florida woke up to a terrible tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "COLLAPSE: DISASTER IN SURFSIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thirty-four - in the rubble here. It's a lot of dust. I can barely see anything. I don't think the building collapsed. It looks like the roof in the drive-through collapsed. I'm looking for injuries. Is anybody there?

FLORIDO: A 12-story condo building had collapsed in the middle of the night in Surfside, Fla., for no obvious reason, killing 98 people. Reporters from the Miami Herald were on the scene almost immediately. They've been investigating why the building fell ever since, and now they've shared their work in a new 12-part podcast with Treefort Media called "Collapse: Disaster In Surfside."

Here to tell us about it is host Paul Beban and Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey. Welcome to both of you.

PAUL BEBAN: Thank you, Adrian.

SARAH BLASKEY: Thanks so much for having us.

FLORIDO: Sarah, let's start with you. As you dove in to investigate what caused the Champlain Towers South condominium to collapse, you learned that a security guard at the building, Shamoka Furman, had heard some loud sounds in the minutes before the collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "COLLAPSE: DISASTER IN SURFSIDE")

SHAMOKA FURMAN: So I hear a boom-boom, but I'm thinking it's the elevator - no beeps, and nothing goes off. Another boom-boom come. That's when I heard a (imitating building collapse). So that's when I immediately - the lady - when I heard that, the lady heard that, she ran outside to see the thud. And everything collapsed.

FLORIDO: Sarah, why was that so key in your investigation?

BLASKEY: I heard her say those words many times, and at first it didn't strike me as anything special. And that's how investigations work. As we began to discover that this wasn't just a collapse that happened in a couple of seconds in the middle of the night but rather one that had started with a localized failure on a pool deck that ended up taking down the tower seven minutes later, those words of her describing boom-boom ended up giving clues to our consulting engineer about what might have failed first, what might have gone wrong. Shamoka Furman's words broke open this case for us.

FLORIDO: You hired an engineer, as you say, and she reconstructed some of the sounds that Shamoka Furman might have heard. Let's hear that reconstruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF REBAR SNAPPING)

FLORIDO: What are we hearing here?

BLASKEY: That is the sound of rebar - so that reinforcing steel - breaking inside of concrete. And that could have been what Shamoka Furman was hearing that night when she's describing those boom-booms.

FLORIDO: You and other reporters at The Miami Herald have never stopped investigating this case. And I think it's worth mentioning here that this week a team of 37 journalists from the Herald won the Pulitzer for their reporting on this disaster. Paul, what grabbed you about telling this story through all the twists and turns over the last year?

BEBAN: It's one thing to read these stories bit by bit; it's another to have these journalists tell you these stories intermixed with all of the audio, the hours and hours of body cam footage, the other available material. And we've been able to weave together, with the Herald's reporting, a story that repackages this material into something that I think is pretty unique.

FLORIDO: Did this vast trove of video and audio footage teach you something that you might not have otherwise known about this disaster?

BEBAN: It absolutely did. Without combing through the vast vectors of audio and video that were coming out of this, parts of this story would have never been told in the way that we were able to tell them, so absolutely. And I think there may yet be other elements of this story that haven't yet come to light because there is just so much material out there.

FLORIDO: Sarah, you found in the early days after the collapse this inspection report from 2018. What role did that report play in how your reporting proceeded from there?

BLASKEY: When we got that report, it was about 10 p.m. on a Friday night, and the building had just collapsed about 36 hours prior to that. And I don't think any of us had slept. And we saw that report, and we almost immediately knew how important it was because it was the first piece of evidence that someone had known that this building wasn't all right.

FLORIDO: Behind the scenes, the federal government is also investigating what happened here. What are they looking into, Sarah?

BLASKEY: What the federal government and their scientists can do that the Herald could not is that they have access to the site. And so they'll be taking core samples of the concrete, testing its strength, looking for corrosion or things that were not built the way that they were supposed to be built. And so they will end up, ultimately, with a much more robust understanding of the structure itself at the time of the collapse and, with that understanding, will be able to, with much more precision, tell us exactly what happened.

FLORIDO: Paul, one of the ways that you make this podcast so compelling is by bringing in so many of the voices of the victims, including from sometime after the collapse, when the families got into this big legal battle over compensation for the tragedy. I want to hear some tape from Eileen Rosenberg. She's the surviving family member of one of the victims. She was describing her loss in a courtroom where this legal battle was playing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "COLLAPSE: DISASTER IN SURFSIDE")

EILEEN ROSENBERG: My heart is shattered into a million pieces and beyond repair. There's a word for orphan and widow, but there is no word for losing a child.

FLORIDO: Paul, there's still so much unresolved grief from this tragedy. I'm wondering what you hoped this podcast would accomplish.

BEBAN: I mean, just hearing Eileen again, you know, the court was in tears. I've been in tears many times listening to these families and speaking to some of these family members, as I know the reporters at the Herald have. It's very difficult to wrap one's mind around the unthinkable and the unexplainable, which is why the results of these investigations are so important to get to how to prevent this from happening again. But the loss will never be explainable or compensateable (ph).

FLORIDO: Well, there are still many questions left to resolve in this case. As you mentioned, Sarah, the federal investigation is ongoing, and your own investigation continues. You're not done yet. Where are you taking your investigation from here?

BLASKEY: Well, as you said, there are still lots of question about exactly why this structure fell. And just to echo Paul here, underwriting this investigation is a terrible tragedy. And for me and for my colleagues, the reason we keep going, the reason we keep digging, the reason that these questions still need answers is so that we can hopefully contribute to a world where this never happens again. And that will take scientists. It will take politicians. It will take journalists. And it will take brave survivors and family members who are willing to share details about their most awful experiences with us. I mean, that has been the reason we've gotten this far.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey and Treefort Media host Paul Beban about their new podcast "Collapse: Disaster In Surfside." It's available now. Thanks to both of you.

BEBAN: Thank you, Adrian. Thank you for having us.

BLASKEY: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT - I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.