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Residents Demand Accountability In The Collapse Of Champlain Towers South

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the investigation into the collapse continues, residents are asking for accountability. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Susana Alvarez, who lived on the 10th floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSANA ALVAREZ: In 2018, we had a board meeting, and the town of Surfside said to us that the building was not in bad shape. That is what they said, OK? The structural engineer has been around for a while. We took out $15 million to fix that building at his say-so. No one ever, ever told us that that building was in such bad shape - no one, no one.

MARTIN: You can hear the emotion in her voice. Some of the residents who own units in the condo tower are now suing the building's condo association. Brad Sohn is the lawyer representing many of them, and he joins us on the line from Miami. Mr. Sohn, how are your clients doing, physically and emotionally, right now?

BRAD SOHN: Good morning, Rachel. This is unprecedented, and I say that as an attorney who pretty much always meets people at their worst moment in life. I've never, never experienced this much pain and fear and uncertainty. It's really even a struggle as an attorney to keep a sober head as we try to move forward and seek accountability.

MARTIN: What will that look like, that accountability? What are you asserting in this lawsuit?

SOHN: Well, what we've done immediately so that we can begin getting further information is name the association, which obviously is, as we now know, had in its possession close to three years ago documentation of significant structural integrity issues. But we're...

MARTIN: This is the 2018 engineering report that flagged major structural damage?

SOHN: That's absolutely correct. And in addition to the association, we are actively investigating - and when I say that, subpoenas are going out today to the engineering firm that wrote that report, to a number of other entities as well, so that we can continue to discover what various actors knew and when they knew it, so that if there is culpability on the parts of other corporate entities or individuals, we can hold those people accountable as well.

MARTIN: Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine told reporters Saturday that officials didn't know anything about that 2018 structural engineering report. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told NPR he was under the impression it had never even been read. What's your response to that?

SOHN: Well, I want to be careful, especially with our public officials right now, because I think everybody certainly wants to believe that they're doing everything in their power and that they would have done the right thing had they had information way back when that could have been helpful. Obviously, if that proves not to be the case, we will be bringing anybody into this lawsuit that, as I say, has culpability in some part. But I think it's a little premature to be talking about that, with respect to the state municipal agencies and entities.

MARTIN: As you heard our Brian Mann report, a Surfside inspector met with residents in November of 2018. So this is just a couple months after that engineering report said there are problems in this building. In this meeting, though, in November, this particular inspector said that the building was in good shape. Did any of your clients attend that meeting?

SOHN: You know, that's something we're continuing to discern because, obviously, information is coming out through various channels, and we're trying to circle back with, you know, people who would have been there and that sort of thing. But right now, frankly, I'm not exactly sure.

MARTIN: Were any - were you or any of your clients aware of any previous lawsuits against the building's owners that were aimed at addressing structural issues?

SOHN: As a matter of fact, yes. And one even predates the 2018 report that we've been discussing. There was a lawsuit filed in 2017 which not only alleged structural integrity questions and cracking and so forth that, certainly, in my estimation, should have raised eyebrows and triggered a very close look, but the lawsuit I'm discussing now references even litigation that predated that on the same issues. So the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

MARTIN: And how - what was the end result of that lawsuit?

SOHN: I believe that lawsuit was ultimately resolved. And so, you know, as far as getting further information about discovery and that, again, we are doing a lot and a lot immediately to try and learn information that can help these people.

MARTIN: And are you getting the kind of cooperation that you need?

SOHN: Right now I think so, but time will tell. I mean, I will say, I think that the advantage to going through the legal process very quickly is people, for better or for worse, tend to behave the best when they're being watched and when they're forced to comply. So we have that benefit now. And we're just going to fight this fight as long as we need to.

MARTIN: Brad Sohn is a lawyer representing victims of the Surfside condo building collapse in Florida in a class action lawsuit. Mr. Sohn, thank you for your time.

SOHN: Thank you. And please, everybody, do what you can to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.