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Florida disaster brings back memories of 2003 Atlantic City Tropicana collapse

An attorney who represented families of construction workers killed or injured in the 2003 collapse of the Tropicana parking garage in Atlantic City is representing several families in the Florida condominium collapse and sees similarities between the two disasters.

“There has been focus on the lower portion of the structure, particularly the interface between the concrete slabs and columns,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, whose Philadelphia firm is representing several affected families.

Failure at the connection between concrete pad and pillar also caused the Tropicana garage collapse.

As of Saturday, 86 people have been confirmed dead and 43 people remain missing following the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Florida, on June 24. Four workers lost their lives and 40 were injured in the Trop disaster, which happened while the garage was under construction.

“Seeing the collapse in Miami has brought all those horrible memories back,” Nancy Wittland said in a text message Wednesday. Widowed by the Trop collapse, she now lives on the Gulf Coast in Florida.

The Trop collapse took the lives of Wittland’s husband, ironworker Michael Wittland, 53, of Pleasantville; ironworker Jimmy Bigelow Sr., 29, of Egg Harbor Township; and cement masons Robert Tartaglio, 42, of Galloway Township; and Scott Pietrosante, 21, of Buena Vista Township.

“It will be 18 years ago October 30. I have never recovered from my loss and can’t speak about it,” Wittland said in her text. “My prayers are with the families. I pray that all the bodies will be recovered, as my husband was.”

Wittland called Mongeluzzi a “great lawyer and a good man.”

Mongeluzzi’s years of experience in construction collapse cases, including the Tropicana, prepared him well for what is now the most deadly building collapse in U.S. history — after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, he said.

Photographs appear to show an insufficient amount of rebar used to attach pads to pillars, Mongeluzzi said of the Surfside building.

The Tropicana garage collapsed because the rebar in the slabs was not connected to the columns, he said.

That resulted in catastrophic failure at that connection, which caused the upper floor … to collapse and take out multiple floors below it. That is certainly one of the areas of significant focus in the Surfside collapse.

Robert Mongeluzzi

At a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the collapse in 2013, Atlantic City fire Chief Scott Evans, then a fire captain, shared his memories of the day.

“It was undescribable, catastrophic damage,” Evans said. “Sheer chaos, people running in and running out. … You had a building, a parking garage … and we knew there was a collapse, but we didn’t know exactly where.”

The Trop case was settled in 2007 for $101 million.

There are obvious significant differences between the two collapses, Mongeluzzi said, as one building failed while being built while the other failed after standing for 40 years.

There are also issues in Surfside of a lack of maintenance, corrosion and deterioration of the columns and slabs and rebar connections, along with the pile driving and drilling at the adjacent project next door.

Robert Mongeluzzi

Mongeluzzi declined to say exactly how many families have retained him. He has had no access yet to the site, as rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing.

Authorities have opened criminal and civil investigations into the collapse of the oceanfront high-rise. At least five lawsuits have been filed by Champlain Towers families.

“The whole world wants to know what happened here,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Tuesday. Everyone, she said, wants to know “what could have been prevented and how we make sure it never happens again.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has pledged to bring the matter to a grand jury, which will gather evidence and hear testimony, and could recommend criminal charges or reforms.

The lawsuits filed to date accuse the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, and in some cases a local architect and engineer, of negligence for failing to address serious structural problems noted as far back as 2018. A Surfside town building inspector had also been part of the discussions, and one law firm has given notice of plans to add the town as a defendant.

A judge recently appointed a receiver to represent the condominium association’s interests, given the trauma facing board members, one of whom remains missing. The board has about $48 million in insurance coverage, while the oceanfront land is valued at $30 million to $50 million, the judge was told.

Mongeluzzi was co-counsel with Linwood attorney Paul D’Amato on the Trop case, and said he was lead attorney in the Market Street building collapse that killed seven people in a Philadelphia Salvation Army store in 2013. The Market Street case settled for $220 million, he said.

He also represented plaintiffs in the 2000 Pier 34 collapse in Philadelphia that killed three and injured more than 30, Mongeluzzi said. It settled for $29.5 million.

“I’ve probably done more construction accident cases than any attorney in the U.S.,” said Mongeluzzi, who is a member of Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, “more than 500.”

Major collapses of high-rise residential buildings are exceedingly rare or unheard of, experts have said, with most collapses involving smaller sections of structures or structures that fall as a result of work being performed on them or next to them.

Until Surfside, the deadliest accidental structural collapse in the United States happened July 17, 1981, when two indoor suspended walkways collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

One was directly above the other, and as it fell it took the other down with it onto a tea dance being held in the hotel’s lobby, killing 114 and injuring 216.

In Florida, a grand jury is reviewing the 2018 collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University that killed six people.

In South Jersey, there have been small collapses, often involving outdoor decks. In 2007, the cement slab floor of the Crab House restaurant in Lower Township collapsed, injuring several people, but no one died. That failure was caused by rusted, weakened rebar, authorities said.

Mongeluzzi said it is still unclear who all the defendants in the case will be. But he does not believe the condominium owners themselves share blame, he said.

With so many lives lost and so much destruction, the case will be exceedingly complex, Mongeluzzi said.

“I anticipate spending a lot of time in Miami,” he said.

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