When Words Kill: Lessons From The Champlain Tower Collapse

Search-and-rescue teams pick through the rubble of a partially collapsed 12-story condominium near Miami, Florida. The death toll may top 160. If the blame rests with words, how safe are the rest of us?

Words, Words, Words

While search-and-rescue teams dig, media and investigators have begun unearthing causes of the collapse.

Current Guestimate Of Causes

Authorities in Surfside, Florida, the site of the collapse, released a spate of documents relating to the collapsed Champlain Condominiums South Tower, part of a two-tower complex. Documents include condominium-association repair-and-maintenance correspondence, as well as an October 2018, third-party structural engineering report of the South Tower based on a field survey.

Media outlets seized on the reports identification of “major structural damage” at and just below the pool deck, which lay above the parking garage.

Surveillance-video from a nearby building in fact recorded the collapse. Investigators now think that the collapse started at the pool level, which crumpled the parking levels beneath. The resulting crater undermined the tower itself, part of which fell inward towards the crater.

According to the 2018 engineering report:

[R]review of the Parking Garage revealed….[a]bundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees…in the concrete columns, beams, and walls. Several sizeable spalls [i.e., broken of pieces of concrete] were noted in both the topside of the entrance drive ramp and underside of the pool/entrance drive/planter slabs, which included instances with exposed, deteriorating rebar. Though some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion….[M]any…previous garage concrete repairs are failing.

Mistranslating from Engineer-Speak Into Condo-Association Speak?

Further investigation will delve into the Tower’s original design and the adequacy or failure of prior repairs. Vibration or subsidence from nearby construction might also have played a role.

In retrospect, the phrases, “Major structural damage” and “Most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion,” seem clear, even prescient.

But how would the report have read at the time — not to an engineer, but to a layman on the condo association board?

Does “major structural damage” mean extensive? Does it mean severe? Does it mean expensive to repair? Time consuming to fix? Does it mean something that must be done as soon as possible? Some combination of the above?

What about the report’s statement that “[t]hough some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion”? What does “in a timely fashion” mean in this context? Three months? One year? Prior to the 40-year inspection? Can the work be phased? If so, over what period?

Finally, the report states that “many previous…repairs are failing.” But, failing in what respect? The harm the report sites in connection with failed repairs is “[l]eaching of calcium carbonate deposits in numerous areas [that] has surely caused CTS to pay to repaint numerous cars.” Is the report telling the condo association to start a multi-million-dollar renovation to avoid the several-thousand-dollar cost of repainting cars?

At the time of the report, the Tower was approximately three years away from its 40-year engineering inspection. In practice, many condo associations take the same view of repairs as many car owners: authorize, right before inspection, the minimum work needed to pass inspection. If that happened at Champlain Towers, it would not have been unusual.

What the report does not say, either in an executive summary, or in the section of the report dealing with the pool and parking garage, is that the building faces risk of full or partial collapse.

Whatever warning the engineers intended to convey did not translate.

Lives Lost In Translation

I will assume that the condominium association’s inspecting engineers acted with professional competence and care.

If so, the larger point for readers are the risks arising when professionals fail to adjust how they write and speak in light of their audience.

Anyone befuddled by a memorandum from his/her attorney written in legalese understands.

Intentional Misstatements

In some cases, bad writing intentionally hides or shades the truth.

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman’s Appendix F to the space shuttle Challenger report drives this point home. At least some engineers within NASA and its contractor understood the risks connected with the space-shuttle program. But, bureaucratic wordsmiths massaged the language of reports in ways that ran contrary to engineering principles and the simple truth.

Inadvertent Miscommunication

In other areas, miscommunication arises from good motives poorly expressed or coordinated.

Medical radiology represents a case in point. For decades, radiologists found themselves describing the exact same imaging in ways that widely diverged. Since 2011, however, radiologists have tackled this problem through efforts to standardize terminology, reporting, and other aspects of diagnostics, treatment, and data handling. Acting through a standards group, the profession updates its guidance periodically and has begun incorporating artificial intelligence to promote accuracy and consistency.

Minimizing The Butcher’s Bill

Spectacular disasters like the space shuttle Challenger and the Champlain Tower command our attention.

For a time.

But stealthier misstatements and miscommunications pose far greater risk and take a far higher toll. For example, every year, an estimated 250,000 people in the United States die from preventable hospital errors. That’s nearly two-and-a-half times the annual casualties the United States suffered during World War II.

A relative of mine lives in a condo tower across the Hudson River from New York City. After reading of the Champlain Tower catastrophe, someone asked her if the Hudson estuary carries enough salt air to corrode the steel rebar in her building.

That’s an understandable question, but the wrong one.

The question isn’t whether the same physical conditions that felled Champlain Tower exist in my relative’s building, but which aspects of her or our lives might be threatened by misstatements or misscommunications.

Across all human activities, if we want to save lives — including our own — we have to make sure that words matter, and that their meaning translates.


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