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Search for bodies concludes at Florida condo collapse site

Rubble and rescue workers at site of condo tower collapse
Search and rescue personnel work atop the rubble of the collapsed condo tower in Surfside, Fla.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Firefighters on Friday declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed Florida condo building, concluding a month of painstaking work removing layers of dangerous debris that were once piled several stories high.

The June 24 collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South killed 97 people, with at least one more missing person yet to be identified. The site has been mostly swept flat and the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.

No survivors have been found since the early hours after the collapse. Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. They went through more than 14,000 tons of broken concrete and rebar, often working boulder by boulder, rock by rock, before declaring the mission complete.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles, slowly driving to their headquarters for a news conference to announce that the search was officially over.

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At a ceremony, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky saluted the firefighters who worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site.

“It’s obviously devastating. It’s obviously a difficult situation across the board,” Cominsky said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women that represent Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.”

Officials have declined to clarify whether there is a set of human remains that pathologists are struggling to identify or whether someone’s remains have yet to be found.

Estelle Hedaya is the last person from the building who hasn’t been accounted for; finding or identifying her remains would bring the death toll to 98.

Hedaya was an outgoing 54-year-old who loved traveling and liked to strike up conversations with strangers. Her younger brother Ikey has given DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the search efforts for himself.

“As we enter Month 2 alone, without any other families, we feel helpless,” he told the Associated Press on Friday. He said he gets frequent updates from the medical examiner’s office.

Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and felt like her second mother, is worried that Hedaya will be forgotten.

“They seem to be packing up and congratulating everyone on a job well done. And yes, they deserve all the accolades, but after they find Estelle.”

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The dead included members of the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady, her family and their nanny, as well as a local salesman, his wife and their two young daughters.

The collapse fueled a race to inspect other aging residential towers in Florida and beyond, and raised questions about regulations governing condominium associations and building safety.

Shortly after the disaster, it became clear that warnings about Champlain Towers South, which opened in 1981, had gone unheeded. A 2018 engineering report detailed cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking garage and other problems that would cost nearly $10million to fix.

The repairs did not happen, and the estimate grew to $15million this year as the owners of the building’s 136 units and its governing condo board squabbled over the cost, especially after a Surfside town inspector told them the building was safe.

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A complete collapse was all but impossible to imagine. As many officials said in the catastrophe’s first days, buildings of that size do not just collapse in the U.S. outside of a terrorist attack. Even tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes rarely bring them down.

The fate of the property where the building stood has yet to be determined. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected.

“All options are on the table,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said this week at a hearing.

The disaster was one of the nation’s deadliest engineering failures. A set of overhead walkways collapsed at a Kansas City hotel in 1981, killing 114 people attending a dance. But that wasn’t the structure itself. A Washington, D.C., movie theater collapsed in 1922, killing 98. But that came after a blizzard dumped feet of snow on the flat roof.

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In the weeks after the condo tower collapse, a 28-story courthouse in downtown Miami, built in 1928, and two apartment buildings were closed after inspectors uncovered structural problems. They will remain shut until repairs are made.

The first calls to 911 on June 24 came around 1:20 a.m., when Champlain residents reported that the parking garage had collapsed. A woman standing on her balcony called her husband, who was on a business trip, and said the swimming pool had fallen into the garage.

Then, in an instant, a section of the L-shaped building fell straight down. Eight seconds later, another section followed, leaving 35 people alive in the standing portion. A teen was rescued in the initial hours, and firefighters believed other occupants might be found alive. They took hope from noises emanating from inside the pile, thinking it might be survivors tapping, but it was later determined that the sounds came from shifting debris.

Rescue crews worked tirelessly, even when smoke and heat from a fire inside the building’s standing portion hampered their efforts. They persisted when the temperatures pushed into the upper 90s under the blazing sun, some toiling until they needed IVs to replenish fluids. They carried on when Tropical Storm Elsa passed nearby and dumped torrential rain. They left the pile only when lightning developed.

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The portion of the building that remained standing posed another grave threat as it loomed precariously above the workers. Authorities ordered it demolished on July 4.

In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, Cominsky said.

Meanwhile, an engineer hired to help figure out why the condo tower collapsed is warning officials that the street in front of the property may still not be safe.

Structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer told Surfside and Miami-Dade officials in a letter Thursday that Collins Avenue could crumble, the Miami Herald and WPLG-TV reported.

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All that remains of the Champlain Towers South building are the walls of the underground parking garage around a hollowed-out foundation, and Kilsheimer, who is with the firm KCE Structural Engineers, says that without more support for those walls, traffic could make them collapse, and parts of the street could fall into the void.

“If the wall were to collapse or rotate substantially, the retained soil under the street and sidewalk could move with it,” Kilsheimer wrote.

He recommended building an earthen berm to support the walls near the street and sidewalk. Otherwise, the movement “could cause portions of the street to collapse and could seriously compromise the utilities under the street,” he wrote.

Miami-Dade County is bringing in crews to help shore up the remaining underground walls, Rachel Johnson, the county’s communications director, told the Herald.

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“We are moving to procure a company to do shoring and bracing of the walls to assure there is no risk,” she said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency investigating the collapse, has been monitoring the site’s safety.

Collins Avenue, which is the major thoroughfare on the barrier island, has been closed to traffic near the site since the building collapsed. Town officials said Collins Avenue would be reopening soon.


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