Miami-Dade County

August 6, 2014

A crash course: Why do so many cars smash into buildings?

Whether it’s speed or crashes, cars bursting through buildings is becoming so common that new laws that require buffers in front of buildings are being enacted.

The scene looked like an action-movie shoot. An SUV sails off the road and crashes right into Marta Etcheverry’s Little Havana house. The fallout: gaping hole, mangled furniture, cascading concrete.

But this was no act. Etcheverry’s 98-year-old mother, Norma, and her caretaker, were inside the house at 1104 SW 12th Ave. Luckily, the pair escaped injury.

“We are thankful nothing happened to her and the caretaker,” she said. The elderly driver and passenger of the car were taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital after rescue workers pried open the car doors. They were not seriously injured.

Whether it’s speed, crashes or police pursuits, cars bursting through buildings are all too routine. And while these types of crashes aren’t formally tracked in South Florida, rescuers get a car vs. building call at least every few weeks.

Cars into grocery stores. Cars into gas stations. Cars into homes, hospitals, nursing homes, even insurance companies.

On Tuesday, a Cadillac hit a house in Miami after getting slammed by an SUV that ran a stop sign. A 3-year-old in the SUV was ejected and killed, the Cadillac driver was badly injured, but no one was hurt inside the home, in the 1800 block of Northwest 53rd Street.

Crashes like these are getting attention, leading to new laws that require buffers in front of buildings. And they’re spurring awareness campaigns.

“Basically when I realized it was a big problem, I felt compelled to do something about it,” founder Mark Wright said.

More than 60 car-concrete crashes happen in the U.S. on a daily basis, Wright said.

Wright, who is from Maryland, started his website after living through his own storefront crash. Wright was making a quick stop at a 7-Eleven when he saw a car coming straight toward him as he was pushing open the glass door.

The car sailed into him, injuring his left knee. Wright then began researching storefront crashes and started a website. He later founded the Storefront Safety Council with Rob Reiter, a storefront safety expert.

Car-in-building accidents cause 10 serious injuries each day across the United States, Reiter said.

Wright soon found that there was no one explanation for these crashes. The drivers are young and old. The reasons are simple pedal confusion — mistaking accelerator for brake — drunken driving, police chases.

North Miami police spokesman Neal Cuevas agrees, saying there is “no exact science.” It boils down to a driver losing control. When that happens, “anything in the way is a potential obstacle,” he said.

But Wright said property owners can be prepared.

“For years now, I believe the best approach is a proactive defensive approach on the part of property owners,” Wright said.

That’s happening in some places. Store owners and government officials are working together to protect the buildings and the lives of people inside.

In 2012, Miami-Dade County approved a barrier law after Laymet Albelo and seven-month pregnant Celeste Gaitan were killed when a car struck them as they sat on a bench in front of a store in a Bird Road shopping center. Rescuers could not save Gaitan’s unborn child.

After her death, Albelo’s father approached Miami-Dade County Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz, who, in turn, sponsored an ordinance that requires anti-ram fixtures or concrete security planters to be placed as a barrier for businesses.

The new rules do not apply to existing buildings, just if a store is being renovated or being built from the ground up, he said.

“Not too many things you do make a difference,” he said. “This is one of them that has made a difference and will continue to make a difference.”

A tragic crash in Winter Park compelled Orange County officials to look into more stringent rules for business owners.

In April, a car flew into a KinderCare daycare center, killing a 4-year-old child and injuring 13 children and an adult. The KinderCare reopened in June with enforced planters standing outside.

Orange County formed a Crash Impediment Task Force. The group wants protective barriers outside senior and daycare centers and plans to push the County Commission for a law.

The barriers are a “very simple thing to do at a reasonably low price,” said George Ralls, Orange County interim deputy county administrator.

In addition to the human safety concerns, the price to repair damage is steep, depending on the damage and whether a building is structurally harmed. Unlike a damaged car, which can be towed away to be assessed, experts need to tread carefully with buildings.

“There are additional dangers we deal with when a car hits a building,” Miami Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Ignatius Carroll said.

First, fire rescue personnel have to evaluate whether the building is structurally safe or in danger of collapsing, Carroll said. Other challenges include people trapped underneath or inside of cars and the risk of fire.

“Car vs. building accidents can turn into mass casualty accidents,” he said.

But that’s the extreme.

When Addonis Parker arrived at his art studio in Liberty City after running an errand in July, he pulled up to find a car had bashed through the front. Parker was just thankful that the car did not mar the Martin Luther King Jr. mural he had restored on the side of his studio.

“It was a blessing,” he said. “That mural is a historical landmark.”

Jay Pilch has seen his share of car-in-building accidents. As the founder and president of South Florida Restoration, a general contractor, Pilch is often called to make sure that the buildings are safe and secure after cars break through concrete, pipes and drywall.

Pilch worked on one office building that got hit twice in the same spot, 16 years apart. Last year, the North Miami-Dade law office of Bryant Filomeno was struck in a section that had been reinforced after the first crash.

“I have a feeling a lot of these accidents are from texting or people playing with their phones,” Filomeno said.

Most building crashes are caused by careless or reckless driving. Police departments have different ways of classifying the accidents, so there is no telling exactly how often they happen.

Miami-Dade County police don’t have a uniform method of separating car-on-car and car-on-building crashes, Detective Elena Hernandez said. Hialeah Police Department’s Assistant Chief Detective Carl Zogby said his city sees at least one car-on-building crash every few weeks, but not all are serious.

“Most of the time it’s a matter of speed,” he said.

That was the case two years ago when a driver heading to a friend’s place after a late-night out lost control on a curve, went airborne and crashed between the first and second floors of a North Miami Beach nursing home. The driver died, but none of the sleeping elderly residents inside were seriously hurt.

In late June, Adela Romero was working on her desk when she heard a loud crash and her computer began to shake.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Romero, secretary at Lerni Corporation at a shopping plaza at 12460 SW Eighth St. in West Miami-Dade.

Where did the Ford SUV end up?

Smashed into an insurance agency.

“We all ran down immediately to find out what happened,” Romero said.

When Marta Etcheverry, 71, got the call about her house, she rushed to her mother’s aid.

Her mother is now left with an unlivable home where oil pools, crumpled concrete and broken furniture remain on her living room floor.

“ It’s a total loss,” Etcheverry said. “We cannot live there. It’s not safe to be inside.”

Miami Herald writer Matias Ocner contributed to this report.

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