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Why were Chile's newest buildings prone to destruction?

Apartment owners are turning to legal action after their brand-new homes collapsed.

The Alto Rio apartment building is seen laying on its side after it collapsed during the earthquake in Concepcion, March 10, 2010. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Jose Luis Leon’s body was the last recovered from the rubble of the brand-new, 15-floor building in downtown Concepcion that crashed to the ground before the three-minute earthquake was even over.

Five years ago, the 26-year-old electrician had moved from Santiago to Concepcion, near the epicenter of February's 8.8-magnitude quake, and last year, when he had saved enough money, made a down payment for a sixth floor apartment in the Alto Rio condominium.

Leon’s crushed body was found in the stairwell between the first and second floors. An investigation is underway to determine why the building, advertised as having “quality construction,” crumbled so quickly.

Leon's father, a construction worker who would not budge from the destroyed building until his son’s body was found, told reporters that even he could tell why: the iron rods used in the building were much thinner than those required, and the pillars were too few and far apart. 

Alto Rio, where eight people died and many more were injured, is better known today as “Ground Zero,” and is the epitome of faulty construction and negligent supervision exposed by the quake.

Despite Chile’s strict construction codes, dozens of new buildings are severely damaged or on the verge of collapsing. Homes and buildings constructed decades ago resisted the quake much better than the modern edifices.

“The damage to pre-1929 constructions was reasonably expectable, as was the damage to adobe constructions in small towns or rural areas. But we are seeing a number of new buildings with serious flaws or on the verge of collapse that have no excuse,” said architect Francis Psenniger, of the University of Chile’s department of construction sciences.

Construction standards in Chile have been improved and updated with each earthquake since the 1929 quake in Talca, a city south of the capital that, like this year, suffered severe destruction. The last time codes were upgraded was after the 7.8-magnitude quake in 1985.

“Chile has been learning as things fall down. For example, the buildings that reinforced their structures after the 1985 earthquake survived this one, but the ones that didn’t, fell,” Psenniger said.

If Chile upgrades its construction standards periodically and its anti-seismic norms are some of the best in the world, why were some of its newest buildings unable to resist the earthquake?