Thursday, October 21, 2021

Surfside building collapse death toll climbs to 9; 150 still missing


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First responder radio traffic audio caught the heartbreaking moments responders saw the aftermath of the Surfside, Florida, building collapse.


SURFSIDE, Fla. — At least four more people were confirmed dead, bringing the official death toll to nine, amid a days-long rescue effort after a condo tower in Surfside partially collapsed, officials from Miami-Dade County confirmed Sunday. 

Searchers have 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 into new areas, authorities said.

“As a result of that, we were able to recover four additional bodies in the rubble, as well as additional human remains,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a morning press conference.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said rescue work is proceeding slowly in part because the building’s rubble itself has “forensic” value and is being trucked to a warehouse for further 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.”

At one point during the morning press 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 staffing 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.

Anguished family members upset at the slow pace have been pushing for more information and authorities planned to take some of them to the site later Sunday, where a crane has been lifting away large pieces of debris.

“We are working with the families and there will be an opportunity for visitation and it will be a very private event,” Levine Cava said.

A team of Israeli search-and-rescue specialists joined efforts to find survivors and recover bodies from the rescue site, where authorities said more than 150 people remained missing.

The approximately 10 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 make IDs.

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.

A wing of the residential building collapsed at about 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 been proceeding 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 state 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 have also joined the effort. Crews were working 12-hours shifts in high temperatures with occasional downpours.

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 still fills the air in between rainstorms.

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 have pointed to a variety of possibilities, including sea-level rise, the corrosive effect of salt water, 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 told reporters Saturday. Burkett said he’s 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.”

Property owners of the collapsed building have already filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South HOA, arguing it failed to properly maintain the building.

Contributing: Associated Press

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