Building Falling Down

Survival Tips if Your Building is Falling Down

We have all seen the familiar images of buildings falling during an earthquake. But buildings can also collapse suddenly and without warning when there is no earthquake. Although this is not an everyday event, it can happen with devastating effects. The news coverage of Surfside condo in Miami Dade County, Florida, demonstrates the devastating effects of a building falling down unexpectedly.

If your building were to fall, would you know what to do to give yourself the best chance of survival?

It took less than about 30 seconds for the 12-story Surfside, Florida building to fall. Roughly 126 people from the fallen tower escaped the collapsing building, most of whose apartments and stairway fire escapes were spared. But their apartments were only steps away from their neighbor’s apartments that fell. Residents who escaped lived on the first floor up to the 11th floor.


Adriana Sarmiento and her husband were swimming in a nearby pool and began filming the building when they heard a noise at 1:18 AM. This video shows water running in the garage and a pile of debris. The building then fell between 1:24 and 1:25 AM.


The Surfside building, Champlain Towers South, seemingly fell due to structural integrity issues.

Everyone is familiar with the 9/11 World Trade Center Terrorist attack. Terrorists flew airplanes into two buildings.

One World Trade Center, which stood at 94 floors, was hit at 8:46 AM ET and fell at 10:28 AM. Escapees had 1 hour and 42 minutes to escape. Two World Trade Center, which stood at 110 floors, was hit at 9:03 AM and fell at 9:59 AM. Those escapees had 55 minutes to escape.

The World Trade Center buildings did not suffer structural integrity issues; they benefited from the best structural engineers and architects, so some people had more time to flee the building vs. the Surfside collapse.

Clearly, the amount of time you have to get out is crucial to the strategy you decide on in the moment.

Do not take any chances. Take some time to review these physical safety tips. Also, you should prepare now to ensure your finances will not also collapse if your building falls. Finally, we will get into how your condo insurance works for fallen condo buildings.

Warning Signs a Condo Building is About to Fall Down
If you are lucky, you will have warning signs that give you enough time to escape. However, you will not know how much time you have, so whether to stay and shelter or run is a judgment call.

Long term signs:

  1. Corrosion. If pieces of your balcony fell off, danger may be near.
  2. You Live Near Salt Water. Saltwater air leads to faster corrosion, rust, and weakened structures.
  3. Crumbling Concrete. Crumbling or crumbled concrete on the garage floor or anywhere.
  4. Cracking or Bulging. If you see your walls, ceilings, stairsteps, or windows cracking, you have little time before they come crashing down.
  5. Gaps. Gaps between ceilings and walls or between built-in cabinets.

Signs a building might fall shortly:

  1. Wall or Ceiling Debris Falling. As you can see in the security film above from a Surfside resident who was not home, you might have seconds before your apartment collapses if you see debris falling from your ceiling.
  2. Shaking. You will likely feel vibrations and shaking as if you are in an earthquake.
  3. Unusual Loud Sounds. It might sound like thunder or a snap of lightning.
  4. Smells. You could smell smoke from a fire, burning from electrical surges, or fumes from broken gas lines.

Next, we need to share some survival terminology that applies throughout your escape plan. So, this heading is out of order; of course, you want to escape first. But, so you understand these terms, we are first describing where to shelter if you cannot get out of the building during a collapse.

triangle of life

Safest Place to Be When a Building is Falling Down
If you cannot get out, what should you do?  The advice used to be to 'drop cover and hold,' hiding under sturdy objects. Also, previously the recommendation was to stand in a doorway since doorways were considered the strongest part of the home. Although that advice no longer stands.

As a building collapses, the interior walls, ceilings, and debris fall straight down. Falling debris can crush anyone sheltering under heavy pieces of furniture or structural components.

The best way to save yourself is to create something that search and rescue call the 'triangle of life.' Look for a large piece of furniture like a heavy table or desk or large sofa. If you are in bed, roll off the bed to the floor and lie next to the bed. If you can, get between a nightstand and the bed.

Wherever you are, drop to the ground, lay next to a table, sofa, bed, or whatever (not under them), and adopt the fetal position. Place your arm and hand above you to protect your head.

The idea is that the furniture will support a collapsed wall, creating a space next to it where you should be safe. This safe place is also known as a survivable void.

A small-sized package, Binx the cat who lived on the 9th floor of the Surfside, Fl condo collapsed building, was found and reunited with his owners. He most likely was sheltered by a triangle of life then found his way out after the rubble settled.

This article primarily discusses residential condo buildings, but one tip we love is that printer paper does not collapse. So, if you are in a commercial office building near stacks of stored paper, create your triangle of life there.

Best Escape Plans While Your Building is Falling Down
If you think you have time to escape, do it. Lower floor residents have a good chance, especially if you are near the stairway. If you attempt an escape, do this:

  1. Think Clearly. At this time, you must make wise and quick decisions (all the tips below). There is no time for valuables, keys, driver's licenses, memories, or freeze up and do nothing. No screaming, no yelling, just act.
  2. Exit Immediately. If you are on the first or second floor and you can safely exit through a window, do it. It is your fastest way out of the building. Then run — otherwise, exit through the nearest door.
  3. Check Doors for Heat Before Entering. Often, fire breaks out during a collapse due to gas lines breaking. So, touch the door on the top, middle, and bottom before opening it to see if it is hot. Look for smoke coming in from under the door.

    Please do not open a door with fire behind it as fire and smoke will quickly enter and spread into your apartment.
  4. Use Stairs - Not Elevators. Elevators are tombs in a collapse. The cable can break, sending the box into a freefall, or it can get crushed, leaving you no exit. E.g., in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, people fled to elevators, and recovery teams found stacks of bodies in them. Take the stairs.
  5. Remain Calm to Preserve Energy. Screaming, crying, yelling, and panic robs the energy you need to escape quickly.
  6. Create a Breathing Mask. If you can, wrap a cloth around your mouth and nose to avoid breathing in dust, asbestos, fumes, smoke, and the many toxic things bound to be in the air.
  7. Check Doors and Stairwells for Smoke & Fire Before Entering. Again, touch all doors for heat and look for smoke seeping from underneath. Ensure you do not walk into fire and smoke
  8. Do Not Linger in a Door Archway. Doorways will get crushed when the building is falling. They are not a safe place to shelter, not even for a second. Keep moving towards your exit.
  9. Hover Near Exterior Walls. Exterior walls are load-bearing walls and the strongest in the building. If you cannot get out through a window or door, get into a fetal position near an exterior wall. If you have time, create a triangle of life (described above). Push a sofa and table next to the exterior wall and hover between them, not under them.
  10. Get Out of Your Car. If you are in a parking lot, follow the same plan as above. If you cannot get out, do not sit in your car. Cars get crushed when a building is falling down. Lie next to a truck or car, not under it.

    Studies show victims that stay in the car perish, but cars usually have a 3-foot survivable void next to them unless a column crushes them. Also, avoid bracing yourself near a column.

Surviving in the Rubble
If you determine you cannot escape or you tried and cannot, you will want to be found alive by rescue teams. Rescue teams use sophisticated technology to do what humans cannot:

  • Search Dogs. To catch the scent of living humans or cadavers.
  • Acoustical Listening-Devices. To hear human calls, heartbeats, and other sounds.
  • Aerial Drones. Photograph and video the area to create maps and search plans.
  • Ground Robots. To go where humans cannot.
  • Chemical Tracing Devices. They smell humans and all sorts of chemical smells.
  • Doppler Radar Devices. To detect heartbeats and human respiration.
  • Sonar. Uses acoustical waves to detect the location of people.
  • Borescopes, Cameras-on-a-Wands, or Fiber-Optic Search Cams. To video and photograph areas robots cannot reach.

Technology is critical as 51% of rescue failures are from human error.

Drones can video and take photos to create orthomosaics maps for a full view of the area. Drone photos also help create digital elevation maps, so rescuers know the height, how thick rubble is, and the parts of the building where the rubble came from.

Robots like the Inkutun VGTV Extreme or the Active Scope Camera snake-like robot can get into small places. Search cams can go 18 feet, but ground robots can reach over 60 feet into the rubble and unsafe voids. Medical teams can see and speak with trapped survivors, and drones even carry water and medicine to people.

This technology also helps rescuers make smarter decisions about rubble to move in a way to not cause secondary collapses.

Do your best to follow these tips to increase your chances of being found:

  1. Attract Rescue Workers. Your primary concern at this tumultuous time is to help rescue workers find you and stay alive until they do!
  2. Call 911. Rescue workers desperately search for living survivors. If you have your phone, quickly call 911 to tell them you are alive. They will gather the necessary information and relay it to the team.
  3. Preserve Your Battery. Use your phone only to help the rescue team find you.
  4. Use Your Flashlight. Open your flashlight app and turn it on when the rescue team is searching. Light travels, and it is an indicator of life to them.
  5. Do Not Make Loud Noises. Loud noises like music or screeching can cause the rubble to collapse more.
  6. Make Tapping Sounds. Rescue workers will listen for tapping sounds. If there are pipes nearby, use them to tap as the sound travels far. If not, tap on what you can while the rescue workers are there.
  7. Do Not Move. Moving may also nudge things loose and can create secondary collapses. Also, if you are hurt, you might further injure yourself.
  8. Do Not Remove Piercings. If you were pierced, do not remove the object as you could bleed out. If you are bleeding, apply pressure or create a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
  9. Create a Breathing Mask. Again, you do not want to breathe in toxic fumes or substances. Use a cloth to cover your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.

What is a Structural Failure?
To understand this term, we first must define structural integrity. Structural integrity is the ability of a component or building to withstand a specific load. For example, steel supports can usually hold about 100,000 pounds.

So, a structural failure is when a piece breaks or buckles under a load. Usually, failures happen because there is too much weight. For example, when snow collapses a roof.

In other instances, the failure can occur because the component has worn down over time — for instance, a rusted steel beam.

Structural failures can be relatively mild or disastrous. A catastrophic structural failure means that the whole building comes down. In other cases, the collapse may be minimal and localized to a single room or unit.

Causes of a Building Falling Down
Buildings rarely collapse from a single issue. Instead, a combination of two or more issues can cause an unexpected collapse.

  • Weak Foundations. Foundations can cost half of the total build price. Even though we never see them, foundations must be strong enough to support the load of the building.
  • Poor Building Materials. Buildings have collapsed due to floor beams that are not strong enough and cheap steel girders. If an unscrupulous contractor cut corners to save money and used steel not to code, the entire building is at risk.

    Concrete is a commonly used building material that can last more than 100 years. But buildings are often left to decay long past their 100-year life span. Concrete also becomes weak when moisture creeps into it.
  • Mistakes Made by Workers. Human error can cause buildings to collapse. Incorrectly mixed concrete lacks the strength to support large loads.
  • Heavy Building Load. Buildings collapse when the load exceeds the building's strength. This type of collapse can happen with the addition of extra floors.
  • The Walls of a Building. Exterior walls and basement garages can contain tell-tale signs of a pending collapse. Look for new cracks and existing cracks that are widening. Walls will also often bulge before the collapse.

Buildings must undergo a recertification process once they turn 40. Inspections identify structural damage, check the electric system, and estimate the cost of repairs.

Does Your Condo Insurance Cover Your Condo Building Falling Down?
Sadly, no. Technically, you have two types of insurance policies for your condo. The HOA must buy a master policy for the entire building and common areas, and you need a personal condo unit insurance policy. Both exclude building collapses.

The Building's Master Insurance Policy
If a covered disaster strikes, causing the building to fall, the master policy pays to rebuild the building.

Unfortunately, typically insurers exclude building collapses from master insurance coverage. This exclusion is because insurers view a building collapse as either negligence, old age, or inadequate maintenance, none of which are covered. Although, if the building fell because of a covered peril, like a fire, it is covered by the building's master policy.

It is possible that the HOA bought an additional rider called a building collapse rider. There are numerous stipulations around whether the collapse is covered under this add-on, however. In the case of the Florida Surfside building, it would be void. That is because the board knew about the structural issues - which voids a master building collapse rider.

Your Personal Condo Unit Insurance Policy
Your condo insurance typically does not cover a condo building collapse unless the collapse happens because of a covered peril (see covered perils in the image below). For example, standard HO6 condo insurance excludes flooding, earthquakes, and other earth movements like sinkholes and landslides. But you can buy add-ons for collapse coverage caused by those disasters.

building collapse not covered by condo insurance

As you can see from the image, insurers exclude the following possible causes of building collapses from condo insurance:

  • Acts of War. Insurers would have excluded the 911 terrorist attack. Disaster relief from the Red Cross and other government acts help, though.
  • Negligence. Structural engineers speculate that the condo board could have prevented the Surfside building collapse if they had acted sooner. They had just begun repairs after they initially received engineering reports over five (5) years ago of potential structural integrity.
  • Old Age or Poor Maintenance. Buildings need constant care and upgrades to prevent damage. They also need building code compliance upgrades.
  • Cracking, Bulging, Buckling. These problems are warning signs that the condo association must fix; if not, poor maintenance and negligence may cause a collapse.
  • Pollutants. Saltwater air and other similar substances cause early wear and tear.
  • Ongoing Water Damage. If the building had continuous water leaks, water damage is not covered, nor is a collapse it might cause.
  • Floods. You and the HOA must buy extra flood insurance, and it would cover a collapse if the floodwaters caused it.
  • Earthquakes. You and the HOA must buy extra earthquake insurance, and it would cover a collapse if the earthquake caused it.
  • Earth Movement. You and the HOA must buy extra earth movement insurance for sinkholes, erosion, landslides, mudflow, and rockslides. It would cover a collapse if those perils caused it.

Typical condo insurance covers the following - although none of these apply to a condo building collapse since collapses are not covered:

  • Dwelling. Provides coverage for your unit's interior walls, fixtures, carpet, and other structural features that you own.
  • Other Structures. This coverage helps with costs associated with structures other than your condo unit, for example, your parking space or storage unit.
  • Personal Property. Covers your clothing, appliances, devices, your furniture, and other belongings.
  • Additional Living Expenses. Also known as ALE, it covers the costs of living elsewhere during the repair of the condo.
  • Special Assessment Coverage. Part of your condo fees goes into the HOA's reserve fund. When significant, unexpected disasters occur, the HOA's master insurance may not cover the costs.

    It is then down to you and your fellow condo owners to pay a special assessment to cover the expenses. You can protect yourself from unexpected costs with special assessment insurance.

    This coverage only applies to disasters that the master policy covers. It does not apply to non-disasters like a hallway redesign or new water pipes for the building. It usually has a $1,000 limit, but you can increase that.

Get a Free Review of Your Condo Insurance Coverage
Condo insurance can be confusing, especially when you are unsure what the condo association owns and what you own. Young Alfred is a top licensed insurance agency in all 50 states. We sell the top 40+ insurers, and when you get a quote, we compare them all to find the best price and best coverage.

We are also happy to do a free condo insurance policy analysis to help you understand your coverage and any gaps in coverage you may have.

Hope that helps!

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