Unfortunately, experience has taught me that these investigations are often little more than political charades.
By Nazarul Islam
When disaster strikes in the United States two responses tend to follow – some kind of commission to unearth the truth of what happened, and new laws to prevent it from happening again. Days after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex in Surfside, Fla., we are already hearing calls for both.
Unfortunately, experience has taught me that these investigations are often little more than political charades. Reminds me of what happened in Bangladesh after the collapse of Rana plaza, costing more than a thousand human lives. New regulations often provide cover for the failure to hold accountable people who violated existing rules.
If the victims of Surfside are to receive justice, this all-too-common procedure won’t suffice.
A former engineer and the former commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections — which oversees building codes permits, and inspections — a Building Inspector that I happen know had experience with three fatal, and politically sensitive, building failures. He shared that the first mishap was 1991’s Meridian fire, in which a series of mechanical failures allowed a high-rise across from City Hall to blaze out of control, contributing to the deaths of three firefighters.
Again, In 2000, Philadelphia’s Pier 34 collapsed — plunging a nightclub into the Delaware River, injuring 43 people and killing three. And in 2013, six people were killed and more than a dozen injured when a vacant building undergoing demolition in the downtown business district collapsed onto a Salvation Army Thrift Store.
In all three cases, warning signs foretold disaster. In all three cases, those who knew of impending danger failed to inform the proper authorities, or those obligated to act on that knowledge failed to. And in all three cases, investigations were launched to assure a furious public that people in charge were “doing something.”
But in the hands of local politicians, these inquests prioritized protecting the powerful over enforcing accountability for those most at fault. The most egregious miscarriage of justice was in the Salvation Army collapse. In that case, a demolition contractor is sitting in a prison cell for up to 30 years. An apparently blameless building inspector committed suicide.
Meanwhile, the building’s multimillionaire developer owner avoided criminal responsibility by pleading the Fifth. The project’s architect — who was aware of the dangerous conditions at the site, and who had the legal obligation to halt the work until the danger could be mitigated — remains free. Why – Because the district attorney granted him immunity to testify against the contractor, whom he was directly supervising.
The government actors — from the then-mayor, to his deputy, to the licenses-and-inspections commissioner — also were all shielded from accountability.
The Surfside victims should not be subjected to a similar farce. Any investigation must deliver true accountability by getting to the bottom of who knew what, and when, and refusing to give anyone who abdicated their professional responsibilities a pass. For example, did the engineer who warned of “major structural damage” in 2018 alert not only his paying client, the condominium board, but also the local authorities — as engineers are required to do as a condition of their licensure?
Was the condominium board negligent in allowing identified risks to go unaddressed for years — possibly voiding their building’s insurance policy in the process? What responsibility rests with a local official who, after viewing the 2018 engineering report, allegedly told Champlain owners their building was “in very good shape”?
The answers to these questions will identify who deserves to be voted out of office, fired for incompetence or stripped of a professional license. In the hands of juries, this information will also determine what financial restitution, if any, goes to the victims and who goes to jail.
By holding people responsible for violating existing laws, a well-run inquiry can help deflect demands that the Surfside catastrophe be addressed by larding the building code with unnecessary new requirements. Florida already has robust building codes and some of the country’s most stringent regulations regarding the licensure of architects, engineers and contractors. Creating more red tape will only reduce housing supply, raising costs and ultimately harming low- and middle-income Floridians.
How can this outcome be avoided? The inherent conflicts of interest mean that any credible investigation cannot be led by local officials. The federal government, meanwhile, lacks the requisite jurisdiction.
The only person with the right balance of political distance and relevant authority is Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who appoints the state boards that regulate construction professions and is ultimately responsible for public safety in Florida. He should swiftly assume control of any civil inquiry.
The Champlain Towers South collapse will be studied extensively by the scientific, academic and law enforcement communities. With so much scrutiny, the public should trust the forensic examination into the technical faults that caused the disaster. It is when human fault must be found that the process becomes corrupted. Though the full story won’t be known for some time, evidence so far suggests that violations of existing rules and best practices — rather than as-yet-unregulated actions — led to the devastation in Surfside.
Only by getting to the bottom of those, and preventing the persons responsible from ducking accountability, will the disaster’s victims get the justice they deserve. Even after the visit of the US President and First Lady at the rubble location, nobody has stepped up to take responsibility.
Apart for a handful of survivors, 150 people are dead. Their body parts are still buried in the rubble. This information has been suppressed, for fear of a huge political backlash. A hurricane is brewing up in the Atlantic, headed for Florida. Vested interests now want the rest of the building imploded, before the damage caused by powerful winds blow away the weakened structure. And, trigger another, public uproar.
What extent will the authorities go, to protect all those responsible for the colossal human tragedy?
[author title=”Nazarul Islam ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Nazarul-Islam-2.png”]The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.[/author]