Miami condo collapse: death toll rises to five as crews search pile for survivors
The death toll from the collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, near Miami, rose to five late on Saturday. Three days after the collapse, rescue crews raced to recover any survivors, fighting fire and smoke deep inside the concrete and metal remains.
The mayor of Miami-Dade, Daniella Levine Cava, announced the fifth death at an evening briefing, saying the number unaccounted for was down to 156. She said crews discovered other human remains.
Miami-Dade police said four of the five dead had been identified, with the apartments where they were. One was the mother of a boy rescued when the building toppled.
The four named victims were: Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83; Gladys Lozano, 79; Manuel LaFont, 54.
A video posted online showed an official briefing families of the missing. When he said they had found remains, people began sobbing.
Throughout the day, workers scoured the debris with dogs and sonar. “Our top priority continues to be search and rescue and saving any lives that we can,” the mayor said. But crews had to fight fire. A bitter, sulfur-like smell hung in the air.
“The stench is very thick,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis said.
A crane removed debris from the 30ft pile and rescuers used big machines, small buckets, drones and their hands to pick through the rubble.
The atmosphere was tense in a hotel ballroom where around 200 family members were briefed, two people present said. The two said families frustrated with the pace of recovery efforts demanded permission to go to the scene and attempt a collective shout – an attempt as much to find survivors as a cathartic farewell.
Among those awaiting word was Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, lived on the sixth floor. She said: “We’re trying to hold it together. I know my mom is a fighter. I know she loves us. I know she doesn’t want to give up. So, you know, it’s day three, so it’s hard.”
When Mike Noriega heard that part of the tower where his grandmother lived had collapsed, he rushed with his father to the scene. They arrived to find no sign of 92-year-old Hilda Noriega.
But they stumbled across mementos that bore witness to Hilda’s life on the sixth floor in Champlain Towers South: a picture with her late husband and their son and a birthday card her prayer group sent two weeks earlier with the acronym “ESM”, Spanish for “hand-delivered”, scrawled across the envelope.
“There was a message in the mess of all this,” Noriega said. “It means not to give up hope. To have faith.”
Days after the collapse in the early hours of Thursday, Hilda remains among those unaccounted for.
Authorities announced they were beginning an audit of buildings nearing their 40-year review – like Champlain Towers South. The mayor asked other cities to join the building review and said there would be state and federal funding to help.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) officials were at the site, DeSantis said. He said a “sister building” of the collapsed tower was being looked at because it was built at the same time and with the same designer.
Later on Saturday, Surfside mayor Charles Burkett said a city official had led a cursory review of Champlain Towers North and Champlain Towers East.
“They didn’t find anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “What we’re doing now is we’re saving lives and we’re bringing people out of the rubble. What we’re going to do in the next phase, after we address support for the families, is we are going to do a very deep dive into why this building fell down.”
Burkett said earlier he was working on a plan to temporarily relocate residents of Champlain Towers North, which was constructed the same year and sits about 100 yards away, and that Fema had agreed to pay for lodging. The mayor said he didn’t plan to order an evacuation, but if he lived there, “I’d be gone.”
The news came after the release of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building had “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below its pool deck. Vice-mayor Tina Paul called the document “very alarming”.
Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association at Champlain Towers South, said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower.
She added that the board had taken out a $12m line of credit to pay for repairs and asked owners to pay $80,000 each. Work had started on replacing the roof ahead of hurricane season and the board was gathering bids for the concrete work, but the pandemic slowed the project, she said.
Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking 1mm to 3mm per year while surrounding buildings were stable, according to Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.
While officials said no cause for the collapse had been determined, DeSantis said a “definitive answer” was needed in a timely manner. Video showed the center of the building appearing to fall first, followed by a section nearer the beach.
The 2018 report was part of preliminary work by the engineering company conducting required inspections for a recertification due this year of structural integrity at 40 years. The tower was built in 1981.
A federal agency specializing in structure failures is sending scientists and engineers to determine whether to pursue a more thorough study. The first team members arrived on Friday, said Jason Averill, an official at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which also investigated the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Israel said it was sending engineering and rescue specialists. Israeli media have reported that some 20 citizens were believed among the missing. Another 22 were from Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay.