Families of more than 100 people still missing after a partial condo building collapse received sobering news Sunday, when the death toll reached nine and a fire chief said the situation looked dire.
Rescue crews have been sifting through a mountain of rubble since Thursday morning, hoping to find those missing after the collapse in Surfside, Florida.
They’ve been stymied by a fire and the constant threat of further collapse where 55 of the 136 units of Champlain Towers South crashed to the ground.
As of Saturday, about 156 people were still unaccounted for, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. Officials did not give an updated number Sunday on those still missing. About 130 people have been accounted for, Levine Cava said.
“We have over 400 personnel strictly utilized for search and rescue,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said Sunday.
Israel and Mexico are both helping with the search efforts, officials said.
“It’s a strategic process. We can’t have one squad working right on top of another. So we have to space out. We have to have different components. So at one time, I think we have over 200 people working on that debris site.”
Crews have cut a deep trench, 125 feet long and 40 feet deep, to help in the search efforts.
“This trench is very critical to the continuation of the search and rescue process,” the mayor said. “We continued all night to build that trench, and as a result of that, we were able to recover four additional bodies in the rubble, as well as additional human remains.”
When asked to describe the findings so far from the trench, the fire chief said they were “horrific” — partly because of a lack of voids, or spaces where people may be safely trapped.
“We don’t have the voids that we are hoping for, things that we are looking for,” Cominsky said. “We are still looking. So that’s what I mean by horrific. It’s just a difficult, difficult situation.”
But rescuers have not given up on finding survivors.
“We work hour after hour, hoping, because this is what we do — we save people,” Maggie Castro of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said Sunday.
“We want to bring the family members back to their families. And when we come up empty-handed, it’s difficult for us as well.”
While families hold on to hope for the dozens still missing, officials are trying to both support them and prepare them for the worst.
“We’ve also talked with them about the developments, for example with the body parts — finding body parts,” said Levine Cava, who was meeting with family members until about midnight Sunday morning.
“Obviously that’s a very sobering bit of news. And they are understanding that that is a possibility. So we are talking through what that means, how is the DNA evidence taken, what’s happening with the medical examiner, how they will be notified.”
Sunday’s death toll is an increase from the five deaths that had been confirmed Saturday.
The victims were identified as Antonio Lozano, 83, Gladys Lozano, 79, and Manuel LaFont, 54, the Miami-Dade Police Department said Saturday night. Stacie Fang, 54, was previously identified, CNN reported.
Other victims not yet been identified.
Many families have lauded the rescue workers risking their own safety to find the missing loved ones. But some have directed their anger toward those leading the search efforts.
“Imagine if your children were in there,” the mother of a missing 26-year-old woman told state and local officials as they met with the families.
“I know you’re doing everything you can, but it’s not enough.”
Castro said she understands why some families are channeling their anger and anxiety toward the same people who are trying to help.
“They don’t have anywhere to place these emotions right now, because there’s a lot of them. And it’s OK. If they need to direct them at us, we’re more than willing to handle it. We understand that they have to let this emotion out somewhere,” Castro said.
“I can’t even imagine being in a position, the position that they are in — not knowing, feeling helpless as to not do anything themselves.”
While the odds of survival might dwindle each day, search crews are still in an active rescue mission, Castro said.
“We are going to go through this entire rubble pile until there is nothing else to go through. And at that point, then we may have to consider going to recovery mode,” she said.
“We are not going to go into a recovery mode until we have exhausted every possible measure of finding anyone in this rubble.”
Family finds a birthday card in the debris
Hilda Noriega, 92, is among those missing, her grandson Michael Noriega told CNN. Noriega and other family members rushed to the site when they heard early Thursday morning that something had happened there.
Standing among debris from the crash that morning, Michael Noriega’s father found a birthday card given to Hilda by friends, and another family member found two photos of her, including one of Hilda and her husband on vacation.
“These were very beautiful to find,” Michael Noriega said.
His grandmother is 92, “going on 62,” he said.
“She’s just so vibrant, full of energy, extremely independent. She’s probably the most popular person that I know, just tons of friends,” he said. “And she lives her life with her faith first, her family, second, and her friends, third.
“She’s so full of life, especially for her family she really, really lives for us, and so we’re living for her right now,” he said.
Families of those missing or killed were able to visit the site on Sunday, the mayor’s office said. They were taken by bus to the scene.
“It is a private and deeply emotional moment for the families,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said.
Structural report showed the building had some ‘cracking’
In 2018, an engineer pointed out concerns about structural damage to the concrete slab below the building’s pool deck and “cracking and spalling” located in the parking garage, according to documents.
A structural field survey report from October 2018 was included in a series of public documents published on the Surfside town website. The New York Times was first to report about the field survey’s findings.
The waterproofing below the pool deck and entrance drive was failing and causing “major structural damage,” according to the report by Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants.
“The waterproofing below the pool deck and Entrance Drive as well as all of the planter waterproofing is beyond its useful life and therefore must all be completely removed and replaced,” the report states.
“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the survey continued.
The report said the waterproofing was laid on a flat structure rather than a sloped concrete slab that would have allowed the water to drain. That resulted in water sitting on the waterproofing until it evaporated, in what the report identified as a “major error.”
“The replacement of the existing deck waterproofing will be extremely expensive … be disruptive and create a major disturbance to the occupants of this condominium building,” the reported noted.
The report, the goal of which was to “understand and document the extent of structural issues,” detailed signs of “distress/fatigue” in the parking garage.
“Abundant cracking and spalling of various degrees was observed in the concrete columns, beams and walls. … Though some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion,” according to the report.
Spalling is a term used to describe areas of concrete that have cracked or crumbled.
The report didn’t indicate whether the structure was at risk of collapse.
Repairs to the Champlain Towers would exceed $9 million, according to emails related to the 2018 report by Morabito Consultants that were posted on the city of Surfside’s website.
The cost estimate included $3.8 million for garage, pool deck and entrance remediation and another $3.1 million for facade remediation. Other estimated costs included electrical, plumbing and sprinkler remediation.
In a statement to CNN, Morabito Consultants said that they “provided the condominium association with an estimate of the probable costs to make the extensive and necessary repairs. Among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.”
The statement said that the association engaged the firm in June 2020 to prepare the “40-year Building Repair and Restoration” plan for the building. It said that roof repairs were underway when the building collapsed but that the concrete restoration had not started yet.
“Our firm exclusively provides engineering consulting services. We do not provide construction-related services, such as building repair and restoration contracting,” the statement said.
“We are deeply troubled by this building collapse and are working closely with the investigating authorities to understand why the structure failed. As we do so, we also continue to pray for all those impacted by this tragic event.”
Burkett told CNN it’s “unclear what steps the building was taking to address those cracks” mentioned in the report.
“We are going to get to the bottom of what happened at this particular building,” Levine Cava said.
Abieyuwa Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University who reviewed the report, said its findings were alarming and should have spurred further review of the building’s integrity.
Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for the building’s condominium association, previously warned against early speculation.
“Nothing like this was foreseeable,” Direktor said. “At least it wasn’t seen by the engineers who were looking at the building from a structural perspective.”
CNN reached out to Direktor on Saturday for comment.
Local official vows legislation ‘so this will never happen again’
The cause of the collapse has not been confirmed.
But Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz said once that happens, “I am guaranteeing you legislation will be taking place so this will never happen again. Ever. Because nobody could have ever thought this will happen here.”
Surfside building officials did a cursory review of the structure of the nearby Champlain Towers North and East and “didn’t find anything that was out of order,” Burkett said Saturday.
“So that’s reassuring, but that is not a deep dive,” he said. “We are going to do a very deep dive into why this building fell down.”
If residents living in Champlain Towers North and East want to evacuate, they can, Burkett said.
The mayor noted they are working with federal officials on relocation options.
The city of Miami Beach — just steps away from the condo building in Surfside — declared a state of emergency Sunday.
“A significant portion of the staging for the emergency response efforts is taking place in Miami Beach,” the city said in a news release.
The declaration ensures the city will be eligible to get reimbursed for emergency-related expenditures associated with the collapse.
On Friday, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Miami-Dade County.
That declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts, reimburse response costs, provide equipment and resources to assist with debris removal and protective measures to try to save lives and to provide temporary shelter and housing for those who have been displaced, the White House said.