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Recovery workers vow to not let up in Florida condo collapse

A member of the Israeli search and rescue team salutes in front of the rubble that once was Champlain Towers South
A member of the Israeli search and rescue team, left, salutes in front of the rubble that once was Champlain Towers South during a prayer ceremony Wednesday in Surfside, Fla.
(Jose A Iglesias / Miami Herald)

Rescue workers now focused on finding remains instead of survivors in the rubble of a Florida condominium collapse vowed Thursday to keep up their search for victims until they cleared all the debris at the site.

A fire official told family members at a meeting that crews “will not stop working until they’ve gotten to the bottom of the pile and recovered every single of the families’ missing loved ones,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said at an evening news conference. He did not identify the official, but said the families were grateful.

“This is exactly the message the families wanted to hear,” he said.

The death toll rose to 64, with an additional 76 people unaccounted for, Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. Detectives are still working to verify that each of those listed as missing was in the building when it collapsed.

Levine Cava said teams paused briefly atop the pile to mark the two-week anniversary of the disaster, but there was no letup in the pace or number of rescuers at the site during the recovery phase.

“The work continues with all speed and urgency,” she said earlier Thursday. “We are working around the clock to recover victims and to bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can.”

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

The painstaking search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort at midnight Wednesday after authorities said they had concluded that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside.

“When that happened, it took a little piece of the hearts of this community,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose congressional district includes Surfside.

Michael Stratton, whose wife, Cassie, has not been confirmed dead, said friends and family had accepted “the loss of a bright and kind soul with an adventurous spirit.” He was talking on the phone with his wife right when the building collapsed, and she described that it was shaking before the phone went dead, he has told Denver’s KDVR-TV.

“This wasn’t the miracle we prayed for, but it was not for lack of trying by rescue crews whose tireless bravery will never be forgotten,” he said in a statement Thursday.

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.

Wasserman Schultz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged financial assistance to families of the victims, as well as to residents of the building who survived but lost all their possessions, while acknowledging the toll the tragedy has taken on them over the last two weeks.

“Is there hope? Will we be able to have a miracle? I know it’s weighed a lot on the families,” DeSantis said.

In addition to property tax relief for residents of the building, DeSantis said the state government will work toward channeling an outpouring of charitable donations to families affected by the collapse. Levine Cava said crews were also collecting and cataloging a long list of personal items, including legal documents, photo albums, jewelry, wallets and electronic goods that they would seek to return to families.

The Rev. Juan Sosa of St. Joseph Catholic Church met with other spiritual leaders at the collapse site, where heavy machinery worked in the rubble and mourners left flowers and photos.

Sosa said faith leaders hope to bring peace to the grieving families.

“I’m hoping that they have some closure as we continue to pray for them,” he said.

The change from search and rescue to recovery was somber. Hours before the transition Wednesday, rescue workers stood at solemn attention, and clergy members hugged a line of local officials while many of them sobbed.

Many residents and second-home owners in the tiny coastal city of Surfside, just a few miles northeast of Miami, spoke of being unnerved about their future on this barrier island.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said he expects the recovery effort will take several more weeks.

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

Some voids where survivors could have been trapped did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no one was found alive. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims. Because the building fell in the early morning hours, many were found dead in their beds.

No one had been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12 13-story building fell on June 24.

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


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