- Nine people are confirmed dead and at least 150 remain missing from the condo building collapse near Miami Beach, authorities confirmed Sunday.
- Searchers dug a 40-foot-deep trench through the site to assist with their efforts.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said rescue work is proceeding slowly in part because the 136-unit building’s rubble itself has “forensic” value.
SURFSIDE, Fla. – The painstaking and dangerous search for survivors from a condo building collapse continued Sunday in a seaside town north of Miami Beach, as families and community members held out hope that the 152 missing would be found alive.
“We just need a few more miracles each day,” Seaside Mayor Charles Burkett said at a Sunday afternoon press conference.
Nine people have been confirmed dead, with eight of them being pulled from the debris. The other died in the hospital Sunday.
“The gut of this community was cut out in an instant,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. She planned to go back to Washington Monday after having been in the town since the condo collapse Thursday.
Anguished family members, many upset at the slow pace of recovery, were given a private tour of the area Sunday afternoon. A total of about 100 family members toured the site for about an hour.
Journalists were kept away during the visit to the site, where a crane has been lifting away large pieces of debris.
Accompanied by dogs trained to find people and bodies, searchers dug a 40-foot-deep trench through the site to assist with their efforts, which were temporarily halted early Sunday when the rubble shifted. The trench provided access to new areas, Miami-Dade County authorities said.
“As a result of that, we were able to recover four additional bodies in the rubble, as well as additional human remains,” County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a morning news conference.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said rescue work is proceeding slowly in part because the 136-unit building’s rubble itself has “forensic” value and is being trucked to a warehouse for investigation into the cause of the collapse.
“They’re looking for if there are voids, where they could potentially rescue somebody, that’s kind of the name of the game,” DeSantis said. “Obviously you’re going to start to see a lot of major debris that’s going to be moved out of there.”
During the news conference, Levine Cava appeared on the verge of tears, while other officials repeatedly thanked other agencies and the federal government for their offers of assistance. Authorities said they have enough staff to maximize search efforts, taking safety into account. They said sending too many searchers into the area could risk hurting any survivors or other rescue workers by causing collapses.
Neighboring Miami Beach declared a state of emergency Sunday, smoothing the way for additional state and federal assistance. President Joe Biden declared the collapse a disaster, a necessary step for helping secure federal assistance, aid and reimbursements.
A team of Israeli search-and-rescue specialists joined efforts to find survivors and recover bodies from the site. The members of the team from Israel’s Home Front Command are experts in engineering and social care efforts. They marched onto the site Sunday morning to join the dangerous search at the 12-story beachfront building, where air conditioners and furniture still occasionally fall. Authorities have been DNA-testing relatives to help identify bodies.
Many of those who were in the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building were Jewish, and as many as 20 of the missing Friday are of the faith, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, Israel’s consul general in Miami, told USA TODAY.
Building collapse in Miami:Multiple factors could have contributed, experts say
Steve Aseltine, a Colorado-based urban search-and-rescue expert, said such searches are painstakingly slow because there’s so much danger.
“Not only are you breaching and cutting as you go, but you have to shore up what’s left. And you’re trying to work in tiny little crevasses,” said Aseltine, a leader with Colorado Task Force 1, one of 28 urban search-and-rescue teams recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Anything that was in the building is still there, but it’s been pulverized, it’s been damaged. That includes food, chemicals, wires. Anything that you think of being in your house becomes a hazard for rescuers.”
A wing of the residential building collapsed around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. Video footage captured the rapid disintegration of the building’s center and wing in a cloud of dust. Since then, fires and flooding have hampered search-and-rescue efforts, and authorities have proceeded cautiously, using lasers to measure debris shifts.
“You have the fires that have been happening; ultimately, that creates expansion in the metal, expansion in the concrete, it creates smoke. But those also take a chance of weakening an already compromised building,” said Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s fire marshal. Rescuers are “trying to work as fast as they can, at the same time looking out for the safety and well-being of those doing the job to save the lives of others. It’s a real delicate balancing act.”
Patronis said search-and-rescue teams from across Florida and from Mexico joined the effort. Crews worked 12-hour shifts in high temperatures and occasional downpours.
“Those crews are working 24/7 because they know that if anyone is potentially alive, there’s a limited timespan to find them,” Aseltine said. “Those crews are in there risking a lot to save a lot, and they’re doing everything they can to help those families and the people who are potentially still trapped in that building.”
At the building, the smell of electrical fires wafts through nearby streets although it’s eerily quiet. The public is being kept far away from the site, where dust fills the air in between rainstorms.
Erick D’Moura, who lived in the building for three years, said a late-night swim in the ocean probably saved his life. D’Moura said he visited his girlfriend earlier in the day and jumped in the ocean before going home. She persuaded him to come back inside and dry off his clothes, so the two of them fell asleep shortly before the collapse. He woke and began receiving frantic messages from friends who recognized the building from his social media posts.
“It’s a tragedy. We lived with those people. Even if we dined together or not, we saw each other in the elevator in the morning or at night. Sometimes I helped carry a box, and these people are dead,” D’Moura said. “There were people from everywhere – from Colombia, from Argentina, from Cuba, people from here in Miami and people visiting. It’s a big mix. It’s Miami.”
Florida building partially collapsed:Before and after look at Champlain Towers South
The building was erected in 1981 and was due for a required 40-year inspection before its collapse. Authorities said it’s unclear why it collapsed, but researchers and engineers pointed to a variety of possibilities, including sea-level rise, the corrosive effect of saltwater, the stability of the ground underneath, shoddy construction or lax oversight.
The building has a nearby twin, Champlain Towers North, which was built at the same time by the same developer, about 100 yards away, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Saturday. Burkett said he ordered an inspection of the North building and is considering whether to relocate residents until that “deep dive” is complete.
“I know that the identical building collapsed for an inexplicable reason,” Burkett said. “Buildings in the United States do not just fall down. … Something very, very wrong was going on at that building, and we need to find out.”
Among those killed in the disaster were Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, a married couple about to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. The couple, both Cuban emigres, had dinner with their son, Sergio Lozano, a few hours before the collapse, he told Miami’s WPLG-TV. If there’s any solace in their deaths, he said, it’s in knowing the two “went together and went quickly.”
Other fatalities identified are residents Manual LaFont, 54, Stacie Fang, 54; Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74. Luis Bermudez, 26; and Anna Ortiz, 46.
Fang’s teenage son, Handler, was rescued by a nearby resident, Nicholas Balboa, who was walking his dog near the buildings and heard his screams.
LaFont was asleep when the building fell, his ex-wife, Adriana LaFont, told the USA TODAY Network. The 42-year-old woman said the debris resembled a war zone. “When I saw it, I almost died,” LaFont said in Spanish. “It felt like those walls fell on me, too.”
JetBlue said Sunday one of its flight attendants, Elaine Sabino, was among the missing. The airline said it was working with her family and has offered to fly family members of victims and the missing to Florida.
After the collapse, property owners filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South homeowners association, arguing it failed to properly maintain the building.
Contributing: Jesse Mendoza, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press