Chances of finding survivors among the wreckage of the collapsed apartment near Miami have diminished as the rescue operation of more than 150 people entered its fifth day on Monday and rescuers sailed over huge piles debris to avoid worsening site conditions.
While authorities still hope there may be more survivors, rescuers have started trying to prepare loved ones of the missing for the likelihood that their loved ones will not be found. No survivors have been removed from the wreckage of the South Champlain Towers in Surfside, Fla., since Thursday, the day half of the 13-story building collapsed. Since then, nine bodies and human remains have been found, five of which have been identified.
More than 300 emergency personnel, including teams from Israel and Mexico, are working around the clock, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been called in.
On Saturday, crews began digging a massive trench, over 125 feet long and four stories deep, to help locate the missing residents. Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett said rescuers must be lucky after days of fires at the site and flooding that slowed their efforts.
Experts warned on Sunday that rescuers had to move slowly and deliberately as they did not want to make the site more dangerous for themselves or for the missing.
While officials hoped they could still find survivors, that likelihood is dwindling every day. Rescuers have yet to find natural voids in the rubble that would create living space, and they stopped hearing noises that could indicate the presence of survivors a few days ago.
Experts say clearing the site and identifying the remains can take months, however, based on similar efforts on collapsed buildings.
On Sunday afternoon, relatives of the missing were taken by bus to the site.
They boarded in front of the Grand Beach Hotel, which served as the headquarters for those awaiting news of the missing.
The buses were escorted by the police and, on their arrival, acrid smoke lingered from the fires under the rubble where search teams have been working since Thursday morning. Relatives saw a crane lift heavy pieces of the building and remove debris on dump trucks.
While Floridians and viewers around the world were stunned by the suddenness of the collapse, warnings were issued as early as 2018 of “major structural damage” that needed to be addressed, according to emails between a contractor and the council of administration of the co-ownership. In those emails, which the Town of Surfside has started posting, the engineer urged the board to fix the cracked columns and crumbling concrete and estimated it would cost around $ 9 million.
At the time of Thursday’s collapse, that job had not been done. But the council had taken out a loan of about $ 12 million to do the job.
Over the weekend, as officials tried to publicly project that they had not given up on finding survivors, rescuers privately briefing relatives of the missing at a hotel collection center tried to prepare them for the worst. .
“Just accept what I’m about to say,” an official said in a Saturday briefing which was captured in videos posted to social media. “It’s going to sink. I understand that it is very moving. It is not necessarily that we find victims. We find human remains.
Family members in the room could be heard sobbing, moaning and snorting throughout the briefing as rescuers explained the details of the search and where human remains had been found.
“This is what frustrated a lot of rescuers,” the official said. “As the building collapsed – the crêpe collapsed – what we recognize is that we are struggling to find some of the bodies that are still intact. Now what we find, again, are human remains. “
Amid the perilous search and rescue operation at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., Some have asked why it had taken so long and if there was hope for those left. inside.
Officials assured the public that the local research team, which has been sent into disasters around the world and now working with Israeli and Mexican teams, is doing all they can.
The dangers to rescuers and missing residents are clear and dictate that the process must be slow and deliberate, experts and officials say.
Toxic chemicals and fire
“Inside is everything from toxic chemicals to fire, smoke and all kinds of other dangers,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who visited the site on Saturday, during the ‘Face the Nation’ CBS show. “They have to be very careful. If they move a piece of rebar here, the rest of the pile could collapse elsewhere and injure responders or injure survivors who may still be there, ”he said.
The search continued after a fire that affected visibility was brought under control.
Dogs, sonar and trenching
Experts are using dogs, sonar, cameras and created trenches to navigate under the heap, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. A trench is 125 feet long, 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep.
Reconciling security and research
Each building collapse and tragedy presents its own challenges, but experts learn from each and use the information to prevent others.
“It’s still a very dangerous site at this point,” said Joseph Pfeifer, former chief in charge of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness for the New York City Fire Department, who has was the first chef at the scene of September 11. 2001, terrorist attacks. “It’s that balance between security and aggressive research.”
Mr. Pfeifer, whose forthcoming book “Ordinary Heroes” is an attack response memoir, has helped coordinate the response to a multitude of emergencies and disasters. He said crews were probably very cautious of the risk of the building collapsing again, with large pieces of debris moving or injured by heavy equipment.
He added that Miami-Dade County has one of the best search and rescue teams in the country.
Timing is also important. It can be difficult to predict how long people will survive trapped in the rubble. “The first few days are crucial,” he said. “Every day the chances of finding people are diminishing. However, there is still hope. It is important to keep hope until the point where you have to face reality.
Months of work
Timothy McConnell, the former New Orleans fire chief who led the response to the 2019 Hard Rock Hotel collapse, agreed. “You really need determined, strong-minded, strong bellied people,” he said of search and rescue teams.
The collapse of the building in New Orleans, which was under construction, left three people dead and dozens injured in 2019. The search for survivors took days, and the process of clearing the rubble took over a year . The remains of the last person were not found until almost a year later.
One of the most difficult aspects, said Mr McConnell, has been the lack of closure for many families. “It’s hard,” he said.
He urged those who are losing patience with the process to remember that this is an extremely difficult business. With the large debris, the possibility of making matters worse for survivors caught in the rubble and the smoke complicating things, it can be precarious.
“What they don’t understand is, do you know how much this stuff weighs?” He said of the debris. “You might need 10 people to move a large chunk of stone.” And parts of the wreckage might be too precarious to be searched. “There were some areas we weren’t sure about entering. “
When did it happen?
Survivors said they were shaken around 1:30 a.m. Thursday by fire alarms, falling debris and the feeling of the ground shaking.
How many people died?
At least nine people were killed. The authorities fear many more deaths.
How many are missing?
More than 150 people were still missing on Sunday, officials said.
How many have been saved?
About 35 people were rescued from the intact part of the building, and two were extracted from the rubble, said Ray Jadallah, deputy fire chief of the Miami-Dade fire department.
How tall was the building?
The tower measured 13 stories; about half of the 136 units collapsed.
When was it built?
It was built in 1981, according to the county property records.
How many people live in Surfside, Florida?
The city, just north of Miami Beach, has a population of approximately 5,600. It is a primarily residential community, with several multi-story condominiums along Surfside Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The city is home to an Orthodox Jewish community and is also home to many retirees as well as immigrants from South America.