Surfside condo collapse: responder says it looked like ‘Trade Center’
First responder radio traffic audio caught the heartbreaking moments responders saw the aftermath of the Surfside, Florida, building collapse.
Staff video, USA TODAY
Nathan Reiber retired to Florida in the 1970s carrying more baggage than a suitcase.
The Canadian lawyer would come to be hailed for his philanthropy, rubbing elbows with celebrities and world leaders, and donating time and money to charitable causes. His South Florida building career was described as a happy accident, a case of a shrewd retiree spotting a property and launching the second act of his business career.
But by the time Reiber was building the Champlain Towers in Surfside in the 1980s, he was facing tax evasion charges in Ontario stemming from siphoning coin laundry money from his apartment buildings there. A warrant was issued.
Reiber’s background and the history of the towers has come under scrutiny since more than half of Champlain Towers South at 8777 Collins Ave. collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24. Search and rescue teams have confirmed 22 deaths with 126 people still unaccounted for as of Friday night.
Canada Revenue Agency, a government arm similar to the IRS, sent an investigator to Miami to find out whether Reiber’s Canadian real estate company had run afoul of tax law when it bought a Florida yacht. Looking at that transaction in 1999, a Canadian tax hearing officer determined it was legal, but “professionally and ethically bereft.” Ultimately, Reiber was allowed to surrender his law license in that country, according to Canadian Law Society Tribunal records.
The legal troubles were at odds with Reiber’s reputation in South Florida as a successful builder and generous philanthropist. A Miami Herald obituary in 2014 praised him for his support of hospitals, faith organizations and the arts. Reiber was on the board of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto and involved with the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, according to the obituary. And he was heralded for his signature development, the Champlain Towers.
There’s no evidence that Reiber or his associates committed any wrongdoing in connection with the Champlain Towers construction. It’s also not known if the developer knew at any time during his life of the South Tower’s “major” design error identified in a 2018 inspection report.
The report warned of critical errors in waterproofing that had led to concrete deterioration and damage to the columns and walls in the lower levels. The cause of the collapse has not been determined and may take more than a year.
While one Surfside official told residents the building was in good shape after that report, owners and the condo association board were concerned about the repairs, and the sky-high price tag, which led to years of delays in getting work started.
“We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now,” said Jean Wodnicki, president of the association’s board of directors in a letter to owners April 9.
Conditions had worsened since the 2018 report, she said: “When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface.”
Wodnicki survived the condo collapse.
Reiber chose a bad year to build in Surfside. In 1980, the cost of all construction materials, including such structural necessities as rebar, neared a 30-year high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bank prime lending rate topped 15%, a staggering burden to anyone hoping for a loan.
And Reiber already had been burned by the Florida market. Along with Canadian developer Max Citron, his company had bought two Miami-Dade apartment projects in the early 1970s just as the market peaked. One faced foreclosure; the other was reportedly sold at a loss. The investors even struggled to pay landscaping bills: An unpaid Miami firm filed liens in 1975 naming Reiber and Citron to get the $3,850 owed.
Shepherding Reiber through 1980s development was Miami attorney Stanley Joel Levine.
Like Reiber, Levine was praised for his philanthropy when he died in 1999; known for raising money for Fight for Sight, a nonprofit researching blindness started by his mother.
Also like Reiber, Levine came to the Surfside development following a brush with the law.
In 1969, Levine’s own lawyer walked him to the Dade County jail where Levine turned himself in. Along with Miami City Councilman Malvin Englander, a grand jury had indicted Levine for conspiring to get $8,000 in bribe money from a local woman seeking a building variance. Both men denied wrongdoing. And the charges didn’t stick. A judge ruled that Englander’s grand jury testimony had been coerced because he believed he might lose his council job if he did not testify. The case fell apart.
Reiber’s out-of-country tax charges might not have put off potential financiers in the 1980s South Miami condo market. In the cocaine cowboy years, the city had more serious problems: Billions of dollars in drug money was flowing into South Florida. And…
Read More: Developer hounded with legal, money woes