Aghayere is a professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.
The 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, resulted in 98 deaths and three searing questions: What caused the condominium complex to fall? Could it have been avoided? What measures would prevent such a tragedy in the future?
In the disaster’s aftermath, reporters turned to seasoned engineers for answers. By studying the original building design, screening video footage of the collapse and scrutinizing photographs of the rubble, experts like College of Engineering Professor Abieyuwa Aghayere provided insights to inform survivors and area residents.
Within six hours of the collapse, Aghayere took a call from Sarah Blaskey, an investigative reporter from the Miami Herald. So began a collaboration that involved frequent — sometimes daily — contact, as details about the building’s design, construction and failure continued to emerge.
Aghayere assessed the original building designs, where he immediately noticed narrow columns that incorporated an excessive percentage of steel rebar. He advised Blaskey that rebar clustered too closely together could leave insufficient space for a good concrete pour, allowing air pockets to form. The designs also called for just ¾ inch of concrete to cover rebar in the slabs.
Aghayere explained that twice as much was needed to protect the steel from corrosive seawater that can seep through the porous material.
As new details emerged over the course of a year, Aghayere explained how a combination of design and construction errors likely caused the disaster to Blaskey and her colleagues, as well as to reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, USA Today, Voice of America and other outlets. His insights helped shape a Smithsonian Channel documentary streaming on Paramount+, “Ten Steps to Disaster: Surfside Condo Collapse.”
The torrent of stories on the complex’s design, construction and maintenance deficiencies that Blaskey and her team produced earned them a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.
“Every time a new thing would come up, he would patiently walk me through it,” Blaskey says, adding that he performed calculations, created drawings and used hand-crafted models during Zoom sessions. “He was absolutely essential to this investigation.”
Though an official investigation launched in 2021 will take years to complete, findings that the newspaper uncovered with Aghayere’s help have already produced results. Survivors received a settlement of more than $1 billion, and Florida adopted an inspection program establishing stricter inspection requirements for condos that exceed three stories.