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Search of collapsed Florida condo shifts from rescue to recovery

Rubble and debris of collapsed condo tower
Rubble and debris from the Champlain Towers South condo high-rise in Surfside, Fla.
(Carl Juste / Miami Herald)

Emergency workers gave up hope Wednesday of finding more survivors in the collapsed Florida condo building, telling sobbing families that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble as crews shifted their efforts to recovering more remains.

The announcement followed increasingly somber reports from emergency officials, who said they tried to prepare families for the worst.

“At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search-and-rescue mission,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference.

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“We have all asked God for a miracle, so the decision to transition from rescue to recovery is an extremely difficult one,” she said.

Eight more bodies were recovered Wednesday, bringing the death toll of the June 24 collapse to 54, the mayor said. Thirty-three of the dead have been identified, and 86 people are still unaccounted for.

At a private briefing, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told families of those still missing that crews would stop using rescue dogs and listening devices but would continue to search for remains.

“Our sole responsibility at this point is to bring closure,” he said, as relatives wept in the background.

Unlike some collapses that create W-shaped spaces where people can survive, a “pancake collapse” like the one in Surfside tends not to leave livable spaces, Jadallah said.

“Unfortunately it is a floor or a wall on top of a floor on top of a floor on top of a floor,” he said. “Typically, an individual has a specific amount of time in regards to lack of food, water and air. This collapse just doesn’t provide any of that.”

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said he expected the recovery operation to take several more weeks.

The formal transition was to take place at midnight Wednesday. Hours before the official change of mission, rescue workers, their helmets held to their hearts and their boots covered in dust, joined local officials, rabbis and chaplains in a moment of silence beside the rubble. The rabbis and chaplains then walked down a line of officials, many of them crying, and hugged them one by one.

On a tall fence nearby, families and well-wishers had posted photos of the victims, supportive messages and flowers. Firefighters hung a banner atop the fence that read “Miami-Dade Fire Rescue mourns with you.”

Hope of finding survivors had been briefly rekindled when workers demolished the remainder of the building, allowing rescuers access to new areas of debris.

Some survivable voids did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no survivors were found. Instead, teams recovered more remains. Because the building fell in the early hours of June 24, many were found dead in their beds.

A week after the condo collapsed, 24 bodies have been recovered. Pablo Rodriguez’s mother and his grandmother are still missing.

No one has been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12-story Champlain Towers South building fell almost two weeks ago.

Twice during the search operation, rescuers had to suspend the mission because of the instability of the remaining part of the condominium building and the preparation for demolition.

After initially hoping for miraculous rescues, families have been bracing themselves for the news that their relatives did not survive.

Owners of units in the collapsed Florida condo tower were days away from starting to pay for more than $9 million in repairs recommended in 2018.

“For some, what they’re telling us, it’s almost a sense of relief when they already know [that someone has died] and they can just start to put an end to that chapter and start to move on,” said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue firefighter and paramedic Maggie Castro, who has updated families daily.

Authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse, and at least six lawsuits have been filed by families of Champlain Towers residents.

The president of the neighboring Champlain Towers North condo association said engineers hired by the city arrived Tuesday to conduct three days of tests at the building, which has a similar design and was built around the same time as Champlain Towers South.

“They are checking from one end of the building to the other, and everything is fine,” Naum Lusky told the Associated Press.

Since the south building collapsed, he has insisted his tower is safe because his association kept up the maintenance and did not allow problems to fester.


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