Miami condo death toll rises to 24 amid plans to demolish remaining structure
In the rubble of Champlain Towers South on Saturday, the death toll rose to 24. Authorities also said the part of the building still standing would be demolished as early as Sunday, to aid the search effort ahead of the arrival of a major storm.
The Miami-Dade mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, told reporters two more bodies were found in the ruins of the condo building, which collapsed last month.
The number unaccounted for was 124, after closer inspection of the missing persons list reduced the number from 145 when duplicates were eliminated and some reported missing turned up safe.
Discoveries on Friday included the body of the seven-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter. The girl and another victim were found overnight. Two more bodies were found on Friday. The discovery of the girl’s remains was especially hard, Levine Cava said.
“It was truly different and more difficult for our first responders,” she said. “These men and women are paying an enormous human toll each and every day, and I ask that all of you please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.”
On SaturdayLevine Cava said she had signed an emergency order to demolish the remaining part of the building – which the Surfside mayor, Charles Burkett, said had become “an obvious problem” – as early as Sunday morning.
“The fear was that [Tropical Storm Elsa] may take down the building for us and may take it down in the wrong direction on top of the pile where we have victims,” Burkett said at a press conference on Saturday morning, referring to a storm, formerly a category 1 hurricane, headed for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The demolition “will allow our rescue workers to pore all over the entire site without fear of any danger from falling debris or falling buildings”, Burkett said.
Rescuers will have access to the garage area of the building for the first time once the remnants of the demolition are removed. That will give officials a clearer picture of whether any gaps in the rubble could be holding survivors. No one has been rescued since the first hours after the 24 June collapse.
The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, underscored the necessity of bringing the structure down in a controlled manner, ahead of the arrival of Elsa.
“We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering, it is structurally unsound,” DeSantis said. “If the building is taken down this will protect our search and rescue teams.”
DeSantis, who said he would not attend a rally staged by Donald Trump in Sarasota on Saturday night, declared a state of emergency before the storm’s expected arrival early next week.
In another challenge to the rescue effort, one firefighter taskforce was demobilized after six members tested positive for Covid-19.
On Thursday, Joe Biden saluted the “resilience” of authorities and searchers and “their absolute commitment and willingness to do whatever it took to find the answer”.
“The families are realistic,” the president said. “They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly, but at a minimum they want to recover the bodies.
“They’re going through hell, those who survived the collapse, as well as those who are missing loved ones. The really hard part is not knowing whether they’re surviving or not, to have no idea.”
A few miles away in North Miami Beach, meanwhile, residents of a high-rise were forced to evacuate on Friday, loading clothes and valuables into suitcases and laundry baskets and wheeling them to waiting cars.
The building, Crestview Towers, was found to be unsafe in a review prompted by the deadly Surfside collapse.
The audit found that the 156-unit condo in North Miami Beach had been deemed structurally and electrically unsafe in January, the city said. Authorities went door-to-door, telling residents they had to leave the 49-year-old structure.
One resident, Harold Dauphin, said he had grabbed what he could and left.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but I understand. Knowing what happened in Surfside, you know, it’s understandable.”
Officials did not immediately release details about the structural problems that prompted the evacuation in North Miami Beach but Crestview Towers reported millions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.
It is the first building to be evacuated since officials in south Florida and statewide began scrutinizing older high-rises to ensure structural problems are not ignored.
A letter posted less than two weeks ago on the community website said repairs were under way or expected to begin soon after delays. Plans included a new roof, replacing a generator and changing lighting.
“Last year has been a different year due to the pandemic and many things have been postponed for countless reasons, but this year we have started to work hard,” the letter said.
The condo association could not be reached for comment.
Darwin Reyes said he lived in the building during Hurricane Irma and a chunk of the balcony above his fell on his during the storm. He listed other complaints, including elevators that often didn’t work and pipes that didn’t drain well. He said he had been planning to move.
On Friday, Reyes woke from a nap. He checked his Instagram feed and saw a notice that said his building was being evacuated. He looked into the hallway and saw people with bags and suitcases. He and his wife packed what they could.
“Right now I’m officially homeless,” he said.