Miami condo rescue work halted over fears remaining structure will topple
Rescue work at a Miami condo block that collapsed one week ago, killing at least 18 and leaving 145 more unaccounted for, was halted early on Thursday amid fears the remaining structure would also topple.
Workers reported hearing sounds of shifting inside the still-standing 12-storey section of the Champlain Towers South tower in Surfside overnight and evacuated the disaster site out of safety concerns.
The halt came exactly seven days after the oceanside section of the building suddenly collapsed in the early hours of last Thursday, killing residents as they slept, and the same day Joe Biden is scheduled to visit to observe the rescue work and comfort families of the scores still missing.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Elsa formed in the Atlantic early Thursday, with forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) predicting a path that could bring the cyclone towards south Florida, and potentially over the site of collapse, as soon as Tuesday.
Kevin Guthrie, the director of Florida’s department of emergency management, announced Wednesday that contingency plans were in place to evacuate the site and relocate resources as the storm approached.
The suspension of rescue activities is a blow to relatives waiting anxiously for news of loved ones believed to have been in the building when it came crashing down at about 1.30am on 24 June.
Other than short delays for thunderstorms passing overhead, and a deep-set fire in the rubble brought under control earlier this week, the dangerous search and rescue operation involving dozens of experienced workers from several countries sifting through a 30ft mound of tons of concrete rubble, has continued round the clock for a week.
“It’s on standby right now,” the Miami Herald quoted one law enforcement officer as saying, reporting that multiple police officers and rescue personnel had all described hearing “warnings” that the remaining section of the 40-year-old building was shifting.
Officials said they planned to offer an update on the situation later on Thursday.
At a briefing late on Wednesday, authorities identified two of the known victims as 10-year-old Lucia Guara and her four-year-old sister, Emma, the first children confirmed to have perished. Their parents, Marcus Guara and his wife, Ana, were identified earlier.
“Any loss of life, especially given the devastating nature of this event, is a tragedy, but the loss of our children is a grief too great to bear,” the mayor of Miami-Dade county, Daniella Levine Cava, said.
“Our community, our nation and the world mourn with the families of those we have lost. We grieve with them and we lift them up as one community united by loss, standing together as we never have before in the very worst of times. We pray for all the families missing loved ones.”
Levine Cava also sought to allay fears that the president’s arrival on Thursday would hamper the rescue operation. “His visit will have no impact on our search & rescue mission,” she said in a tweet.
“We’re deeply grateful that our community remains a top priority for the president as he continues to provide the full support of the federal government.”
Biden signed a disaster declaration for the tragedy last week, freeing federal funds and resources. Engineers from the national institute of standards and technology (NIST), a government agency that investigated the fall of New York’s the World Trade Center in the 2001 terrorist attacks, will lead a federal inquiry into the cause.
It was revealed at the weekend that a structural engineer’s report in 2018 found major defects in the condominium complex that were not addressed, and it was reported this week that the condo association sent a letter to residents in April warning that the building’s structural conditions were deteriorating, requiring $15m in assessments for repairs.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Miami-Dade, said on Tuesday she would launch a grand jury investigation into the collapse.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who has been a frequent visitor to the site, has also promised a full and timely inquiry into the disaster. Addressing the media on Wednesday, he said he met with families at the assistance center still waiting for news of their relatives.
“While there’s an overwhelming amount of grief there is still apprehension about not knowing for sure,” he said. “Rest assured those folks are going to be working on that pile, they’re going to get answers one way or the other.”
DeSantis said the tragedy was “heartbreaking” but that he was also inspired by the stories of those killed or missing: “You have some people that have lived remarkable lives, have tremendous families. I’ve been able to see the real raw pain and emotion that this has caused.”