A fifth body was pulled from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside (in Florida’s Miami-Dade county) on Saturday afternoon and other human remains located, as the search and rescue operation entered its third day, dimming hopes that anyone would be found alive in the wreckage.
By late afternoon, voluntary evacuations were also underway at two other buildings, Champlain Towers North and East – the North of the same age and similar design to the South Condo, the crumbled building, which had been flagged as having “major structural damage” at least three years ago.
Search and rescue crews swept the mammoth pile of rubble with canines and sonar using a grid system to identify possible survivors.
Most of the day, they faced rain and a stubborn fire smouldering below the collapsed structure.
Meanwhile, elected leaders sought to reassure residents of other high-rise buildings that their structures are safe.
Family members have been asked to provide DNA to help identify the remains.
Miami-Dade County Mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, said 130 people have been accounted for and 156 were still missing.
From Miami-Dade to the Florida Governor’s Mansion and federal agencies, government officials pledged to send more support for victims and families while they work to find answers for the unimaginable tragedy that killed at least four people and buried potentially dozens more in a pile of crumbled concrete and twisted steel.
Search and rescue remained the priority as of Saturday afternoon, even as the subterranean fire slowed search-and-rescue teams carrying on the dire but delicate work of picking over and tunnelling through the two-story-high pile of debris that once held more than 50 homes.
Levine Cava said that progress has been made in abating the fire that hampered search efforts.
A sweep of the pile with dogs has been conducted, she said, and responders continue to aim to minimise the use of heavy equipment.
Rescue workers had carved a trench in the wreckage, trying to isolate the fire and search the portion of the pile not affected by smoke or flames.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said crews brought in ventilators to help clear the air but that they must be used judiciously because too much added air might intensify the smoke and fire.
While first responders continued to work through the wreckage, other developments included:
— Levine Cava ordered an immediate audit of all high rises older than 40 years and taller than five stories, as well as those built by the same developer that constructed the Champlain Towers condominium complex. It is not clear how many buildings will be audited, but Levine Cava said the review would be conducted “within the next 30 days, starting right now.”
— Mandatory evacuations were ordered at the crumbled condominium’s sister tower, Champlain Towers North. The towers were built the same year, 1981, using the same designer. A voluntary evacuation was underway at at least one other building nearby.
— The next of kin of three people previously pronounced dead and pulled from the rubble have now been notified, Levine Cava said. She said she would not be naming those three victims out of respect for the families.
— A team of scientists and engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a little-known sub-agency of the Department of Commerce that investigated the fall of the Twin Towers after 9/11, arrived Friday at the Surfside site. Their goal: to decide whether their agency should launch a full investigation into the catastrophe, and then to begin the painstaking process of determining what went wrong.
— New details emerged that may begin to explain how such a monumental and deadly collapse could have occurred.
In a 2018 report about the Champlain Towers South Condo, an engineer flagged a “major error” dating back to the building’s origin where lack of proper drainage on the pool deck had caused “major structural damage,” according to records released late Friday night by Surfside officials.
A lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade circuit court by one resident, Manuel Drezner, alleging that the building’s homeowner’s association knew the building was unsafe but failed to inform residents.
Levine Cava, speaking at a press conference on Saturday, emphasized that hope is not lost for the many people anxiously awaiting word from their missing loved ones who may have been in the part of the building that collapsed early Thursday.
“Our top priority now continues to be search and rescue,” she said.
Speaking at the same media briefing, Governor Ron DeSantis added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on-site and collaborating with state and local officials to continue the search-and-rescue effort.
“We’re working well,” he said.
Charles Burkett, Surfside’s mayor, said the subterranean blaze was likely due to “fuel of the cars getting crushed and fluid leaking out. Fortunately, they’re tracing the gases and there are no explosive gases at this point.”
Between 80 and 120 first responders — members of Miami-Dade’s renowned Urban Search and Rescue Team bolstered by teams rushing in from around the state — worked overnight Friday and into Saturday morning.
No one has been pulled alive from the building’s remains since Thursday morning, when firefighters rescued a boy trapped in the rubble.
Search dogs trained to find the living were joined by dogs trained to find the dead.
Teams began placing little red flags on spots on broken concrete slabs, some that one source briefed on the search said might indicate human remains — critical for DNA identification of victims.
Surfside’s mayor said town officials are considering an evacuation of the Champlain Towers South’s sister building.
The condominium complex is made up of three residential towers.
The partial collapse was in the 136-unit South tower. Its remaining homes have been evacuated.
The North and East towers continue to house residents.
If those in the still-standing Champlain Towers North want to move out, then they can do so with FEMA’s assistance, Burkett said.
But the town of Surfside isn’t ordering anyone to move yet.
“There seems to be a consensus that we don’t want to make anybody do anything,” Burkett said, adding: “What we want to do is give them options and make them feel safe. And keep them safe.”
Burkett added that town officials “will talk to the condo board and make them aware of our concerns.”
As the search-and-rescue effort transforms into a recovery, Surfside officials released records late Friday night that shed new light on the building’s structural integrity.
The concern was laid out in an October 2018, “Structural Field Survey Report,” produced for the condo association by engineer Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants.
Morabito wrote that the “main issue” at Champlain Towers was that the pool deck and outdoor planters “laid on a flat structure” preventing water from draining.
The lack of waterproofing was “a systemic issue” that traced back to a flaw “in the development of the original contract documents” 40 years ago, the report said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the issue was repaired or whether it could have ultimately contributed to the partial collapse.
The report documented how the years of standing water on the pool deck had severely damaged the concrete structural slabs below.
The problem needed to be addressed quickly, Morabito wrote.
Returning to Surfside for the third day on Saturday, DeSantis said he still had hope that more survivors would be found.
“You wake up in the morning hoping that more and more people were pulled out,” he said at the disaster command center on Saturday, “and that news just hasn’t been what we had hoped.”
DeSantis said local, state and federal agencies are collaborating on the rescue effort. “We’re working well,” he said.
On Friday, the governor addressed mounting questions about the absence of any explanation for the collapse and said he had been conferring with Levine Cava about the need for answers.
DeSantis said on Friday that he spoke with President Joe Biden, who “reiterated his administration’s full support” and offered “investigative personnel.”
DeSantis also offered the state’s full cooperation to find answers.
“I think there’s a lot of other people throughout this community and really throughout Florida who want to know: How could a building just collapse like that,” he said.
Though county officials said 127 people are now accounted for, Levine Cava stressed that all the numbers are “fluid” because some residents may not have been in the building when it collapsed.
The list of 159 unaccounted people was compiled from the missing person reports and data collected at the reunification site at the Surfside Community Center, which was emptied Friday afternoon as family members transitioned to a new center at the Grand Beach Hotel one block north of the disaster site.
While the cause of the 12-story oceanfront condo tower’s collapse remains unknown, Levine Cava and other county officials confirmed that there was no sinkhole under the building.
Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said crews brought in heavy machinery Friday night to remove rubble from above.
The rescuers boring through the concrete from the garage under the building are only entering the passageways after structural engineers determine what is safe and where pylons should be placed to bolster support.
Asked if he believes there is a chance of anyone still being alive, Jadallah would only say, “We have hope.”