Witness account of explosion at Sunny Isles Beach condo tower
A 34th-floor boiler room blew up atop a new waterfront Sunny Isles Beach condominium Friday, injuring six people, including at least one worker in or near the boilers at the time of the explosion.
Other people were hurt by falling building debris from the Château Beach Residences, said Michelle Fayed, a Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department spokeswoman. The concrete flew as far as the Monaco Resort next door.
The building’s developer and general contractor said three workers were inside or just outside the boiler room during the blast. Some of the workers suffered “pretty significant, life-threatening injuries,” Fayed said. She wouldn’t confirm where the workers were, what they were doing or how many had been hurt.
The person most seriously injured was air-lifted to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Two were rushed to Aventura Hospital and Medical Center in an ambulance, and another was treated at the scene.
Two firefighters were also hurt, one of them badly enough to be sent to the hospital, though he was “very stable,” according to Fayed. Two people trapped in an elevator were uninjured.
The likely cause of the explosion was a gas leak that had been contained by Friday afternoon, according to Fayed, though the area remained unsafe because of two large, dangling concrete slabs. The building’s general contractor disputed that there had been a leak.
Timothy Sterling, vice president at Coastal Construction, said the only leak that had been reported by the fire department was outside the neighboring Monaco, not in the Château Beach, located at 17475 Collins Ave.
“The gas company relocated the main gas meter yesterday, and the gas had to be shut down,” said Sterling, whose workers are completing final touch-ups. “What the guys were doing today was restarting the boilers.”
Peoples Gas, which supplies gas to the Château Beach, had no employees there Friday, said Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for TECO Energy, which owns the company.
“We don’t really know what happened,” developer Manuel Grosskopf said. Grosskopf hired Coastal to build the tower.
Aldo Mottolese, 26, said he was in his apartment in the building next door when he heard a loud “boom.”
“It sounded like a plane, like a plane went inside of the water,” he said. “It was pretty horrific.”
He saw the building’s concrete shatter into pieces — one falling to the left, another to the right. As the concrete hit the ground, clouds of smoke filled the sky, he said.
“Everything shook,” said Renata Reis, 38, who lives at the Sands Pointe condo about half a mile away. “I looked out the window and saw helicopters and immediately thought it was terrorism.”
Early reports suggested dozens more had been injured, but that was not the case.
The Château Beach was completed so recently — about two months ago — that it is almost entirely empty. A spokesman for the developer said only one unit is occupied, and the resident wasn’t home.
“This whole day has felt surreal, to be honest with you,” said Sunny Isles Beach Mayor George “Bud” Scholl, who praised local authorities’ quick response. “The most important thing is that we had no life-ending injuries.”
He said the small Monaco Resort was quickly evacuated after the explosion. The Château Beach was also emptied. Florida Gov. Rick Scott telephoned the mayor to offer state aid.
At the time of the blast, the mayor was only about a block away, headed to lunch. He didn’t hear anything, but simply glancing down the street told him something was wrong, he said.
“When I looked up, I saw debris still falling off the building,” he said. “It flew toward the beach, the park and the adjacent property there, the Monaco.”
The Château Beach had two gaping holes outside the top-floor boiler room, along the north side of the building, and there appeared to be another one at a service elevator.
So many fire rescue trucks pulled up to the building after the 911 call came in at 11:57 a.m. that 78 emergency vehicles remained on site four hours later. Traffic was gridlocked.
Château Beach Residences is a 34-story, ultra-luxury condo tower where unit prices average $3 million and the penthouse has four bedrooms and 8,012 square feet, according to floor plans filed with the city. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez attended the building groundbreaking in December 2012.
Questions have been raised about safety at the work site before.
In July, a man named Denis Destin working maintenance at the Monaco filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade civil court against Grosskopf and Coastal Construction. Destin alleged he was standing on the street outside the Château Beach when a hard hat fell from approximately 30 stories up and hit him in the back of the head, causing “serious and permanent injuries.” His lawyer, Ron Kurtz, said Destin was left blind in his right eye and is suffering from tremors and memory loss.
In a statement, Coastal vice chairman Dan Whiteman said the issue is something that would have to be “addressed by the insurance adjusters.”
Grosskopf’s Château Group is developing two other projects nearby: the Fendi Château Residences in Surfside (a partnership with Italian fashion house Fendi) and the 52-story Ritz-Carlton Residences in Sunny Isles (a joint venture with local developer Edgardo Defortuna).
Cleo Fleming, 35, a carpenter who has worked at the Château Beach for about a year, said he was on the building’s 32nd floor, waiting for the elevator, when the explosion happened.
“I’m thinking it’s just an accident,” he said.
Fleming said he witnessed two of his co-workers being carried out by fire-rescue workers. There was a plumber strapped down on a gurney, with a speck of blood on his hands, as well as an injured laborer, he said.
“They had him on the stretcher, because his arm, he got hit by the falling debris,” Fleming said.
The situation, he added, could have been “a whole lot worse.”
Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report, as did Miami Herald photographers Marsha Halper and Walter Michot.