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'Tragedy without precedent': Condo building partially collapses near Miami; at least 1 dead, 99 unaccounted for

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/25/2021 John Bacon, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY
Rescue workers look through the rubble where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed in Surfside, Florida, early Thursday. © Lynne Sladky, AP Images Rescue workers look through the rubble where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed in Surfside, Florida, early Thursday.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Rescue crews were working into the night to scour through a mammoth pile of twisted steel and concrete Thursday while searching for any signs of life after a 12-story beachfront condominium building collapsed, killing at least one person and leaving 99 unaccounted for. 

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said at an 8 p.m. news conference that crews would be working through the night and into Friday.

MORE NEWS: What we know Friday about the collapse in Surfside

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Residents screamed for help as they sought to flee the building earlier in the day, and some were plucked from the building by firefighters using ladders. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett confirmed that at least one person had died but warned the death toll was likely to rise. By late Thursday, nearly 100 people were still unaccounted for, and authorities did not know how many were in the tower when it fell.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

He said on CNN later in the evening that thunderstorms overnight may complicate things, but that first responders were "not giving up" the search.

Cominsky said he had hope for survivors: "It's difficult [in the night] but it's hope," he said. "Heads up, and we'll keep going."

'Tragedy without precedent': Lawmakers share support, resources

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz assured the tight-knit Surfside community that the federal government would "help them in any way when they need answers."

"I will tell you after spending the bulk of the day here that this is a tragedy without precedent in the United States of America," the Democratic congresswoman said at the 8 p.m. news conference. "Devastation that I witnessed today is the likes of which I've never seen in other nations."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also spoke of the devastation and desperation at the site. 

"You never want this to happen anywhere," he said, adding that a "phenomenal community response is what we can do for people in a time like this."

"This is a dark and tragic day, and we continue to pray for some miracles. [But] we're inspired by the men and women who are out there right now," he said. 

After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an emergency declaration for Miami-Dade County, making it easier to send state resources, Wasserman-Schultz said the federal government had assured her that it would provide any resources needed for the community. 

Mother, child pulled from rubble 

Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead.

In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade emergency management, told the Miami Herald.

Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage and fire personnel hoisting the boy over his shoulders. It was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason. Teams were trying to enter the building from a parking garage beneath the structure.

How many people are still missing?

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett confirmed at least one person died. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said officials were able to account for 102 people thus far, but 99 were still unaccounted for. 

It's unclear whether those 99 people were in the building during the collapse.

Crews continued to search the debris for survivors as air conditioning units dangled from gaping holes in the high rise in a mess of wires, cables, couches and people's belongings. 

Ten people were treated at the scene and two were brought to the hospital, one of whom died, Burkett said, adding that 15 families walked out of the building on their own. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the site and said engineers already had begun investigating the cause of the collapse. But he added that "we won't have the answers immediately."

"It's a tragic day," DeSantis said. "We still have hope to identify additional survivors."

'I have no hope': Loved ones await news, survivors flee after condo building partially collapses near Miami

Authorities say they don't know how many people were in the building when it collapsed, nor how many of them were able to flee the disaster. The building is part of Champlain Towers South, built in 1981 and containing more than 130 apartments. Some are occupied by year-round residents, others are primarily used in winter.

Rescue crews use sonar to detect survivors, hear banging

Crews donning hardhats and accompanied by search and rescue dogs scavenging through the piles of concrete and cables searching for any signs of life. 

They looked for gaps in the wreckage and used a garage under the building as a tunnel system to maneuver throughout the building. Ray Jadallah, assistant fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire & Rescue, said crews were using sonar equipment to detect any movements in the debris and ensure safety for crews. The equipment detected what Jadallah said sounded like "banging." 

"We did receive sounds, not necessarily people talking, but sounds," he said, describing it as possible banging under the layers of debris. 

Jadallah said crews were methodically making their way through the area by cutting through the metal and concrete debris and making holes for rescue personnel to check for survivors. Each time sonar equipment is placed. 

Some of the debris includes broken water pipes and flooded areas, complicating the rescue mission and potentially worsening the situation for any potential survivors trapped under the rubble with a limited air supply.  

He said the efforts caused a small fire to start earlier Thursday afternoon as the wreckage shifted. It was extinguished within about 20 minutes.

Sister-in-law of Paraguay's president among unaccounted for

Relatives of the first lady of Paraguay were among the 99 people who are unaccounted for, Leticia Robertti, a spokesperson for the Consul General of Paraguay in Miami, told USA TODAY.

They included the sister of the First Lady, Sofia Lopez Moreira Bó, the sister's husband, Luis Pettengill, their three children and their nanny, Lady Luna Villalba. Other Paraguayans were also among those unaccounted for. 

About 20 Jewish people were also among the unaccounted for, including some with Israeli citizenship, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, Consul General of Israel in Miami, told USA TODAY.


Video: Scenes From Miami-Area Building Collapse (Bloomberg)

More: Closer look at Champlain Towers South, the Florida building that partially collapsed

In Spanish: Una mirada al Champlain Towers South, el edificio de apartamentos en Florida que colapsó parcialmente

After the collapse, quiet, then screams for help

Jeff and Penney Pias, 60 and 56, from Fairfield Bay, Arkansas were vacationing at the Bluegreen Vacations Hotel next door. He said the collapse sounded like a "huge tornado."

"I didn’t see the building just the dust covering the sky," he said. "We were on the second floor, the windows shook and the alarm went off."

Pias and his wife grabbed a few things and ran downstairs. When they arrived at the lobby the dust had inundated the lobby. Pias said there was dead silence outside for about 15 seconds. He described a quiet beach. Then the screams started.

“All of a sudden people started screaming for help. I could see people on the balconies yelling,' help me,'” Pias said. "“I just wanted the firetrucks to get there I knew it was their only hope."

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Family member: 'I have no hope'

A family reunification center was set up nearby. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said chaplains and victim advocates were on-site support the survivors and family members in need of resources. 

"Our social service agencies as well are coming in," she said. "They are going to be here to assist in the hours and days ahead."

Pablo Rodriguez, 40, is a Miami native whose 64-year-old mother and 88-year-old grandmother lived in the wing that collapsed. He said that he last spoke to his mom around 7 p.m. last night to discuss the family weekend plans – the grandmother and great-grandmother were going to pick up Rodriguez’s 6-year-old son and spend the weekend together.

Rodriguez said next month would have been his grandmother’s 89th birthday. He had plans to surprise her with brunch at a nice restaurant.

“They lived in the wing that’s collapsed," Rodriguez said in tears at the reunification center. “I came to the center, but I have no hope.”

Are people still trapped in the building?

Firefighters picked through the rubble – piled almost half as high as the part of the building still standing – extricating survivors and carrying them from the wreckage. Surfside Town Manager Andy Hyatt said the search and rescue effort could take a week. 

Raide Jadallah, assistant fire chief of operations for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said firefighters were shoring up the building and tunneling into the devastation to search for survivors. About 55 of the 130-plus condos collapsed, he said.

Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald that emergency workers believed they have cleared all survivors from inside the tower. He said more than 70 units were destroyed or damaged.

“Everyone who is alive is out of the building,” he said.

How many people have died?

Burkett said at least one person was dead and at least another 10 were injured.

Search efforts in the collapsed section of the building were continuing, but the way the building fell means those efforts may not be successful in recovering many people, Burkett said.

"The problem is the building has literally pancaked," he said.

What caused the collapse? 

The fire department has yet to say what may have caused the collapse near 88th Street and Collins Avenue. Police blocked nearby roads, and dozens of fire and rescue vehicles, ambulances and police cars converged on the area.

Burkett said that roof work had been ongoing at the building over the past month but said he was unsure whether that was a factor. He said it was "hard to imagine that could have been the impetus for a catastrophic collapse," adding that it was "not an old building" and rare — something he'd never seen living in the area his whole life. 

More: Collapsed Miami condo had been sinking into Earth at alarming rate since 1990s, researchers say

"It's less likely likely than a lightning strike, it's just doesn't happen," he said of the building collapse. "You don't see buildings falling down in America. And here we had a building literally fall down, just doesn't happen."

Building was undergoing 40-year inspection 

The building was only 40 years old, built in 1981. Florida requires all buildings and properties to be inspected every 40 years to be recertified and Miami-Dade County officials were in the process of inspecting the building before its collapse, according to the Miami Herald. The newspaper reported the inspections examine whether a structure is stable and safe and the building's association recently hired an engineer to examine electrical and structural changes. 

More: Surfside building: Engineer who probed FIU bridge collapse to investigate Surfside condo

map: This aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed early Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. © Amy Beth Bennett, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP This aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed early Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla.

Oren Cytrynbaum, an attorney, owns two units in the building along with his family and fortunately wasn't there when it collapsed. The side of the building where his units are remained intact, but he's worried about some of his neighbors with loved ones who are still missing. 

There was no indication that the building was in ill-repair but was being inspected for the 40-year review. Engineers were coming through to inspect it, Cytrynbaum said, and there were some repairs done to the roof before the fall but nothing else he was aware of. 

Building had been sinking into Earth at alarming rate: researchers

A Florida high rise that collapsed Wednesday night was determined to be unstable a year ago, according to a researcher at Florida International University.

The building, which was constructed in 1981 on reclaimed wetlands, has been sinking at an alarming rate since the 1990s, according to a 2020 study conducted by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University.

“I looked at this morning and said, ‘Oh my god.’ We did detect that,” he said of the Champlain Towers South.

More: Collapsed Miami condo had been sinking into Earth as early as the 1990s, researchers say

Wdowinski said his research is not meant to suggest any certainty about what caused the collapse of the condominium. The building was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s, and the sinking could have slowed or accelerated in the time since. 

In his experience, Wdowinski said even the level of subsidence observed in the 1990s typically results in impacts to buildings and their structures, such as cracked walls or shifting foundations. He believes that very well could have been the case for the Champlain building in the 1990s, based on his findings. 

 “It was a byproduct of analyzing the data. We saw this building had some kind of unusual movement,” Wdownski said.  

Firefighters use cherry-picker to pluck residents from building

Barry Cohen, 63, and his wife were asleep in the building when he heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. The couple opened the door to the hallway.

“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” Cohen said. “A gaping hole of rubble.”

He and his wife eventually made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.

Wendy Jean Louis arrived on the scene wearing an orange University of Miami sweater and red scrubs. She’s a caregiver for a family who lives in the building. 

"I can see that’s where the unit was, that’s where their apartment was,” she said, sobbing as she looked at the rubble. “I spend more than 10 hours here, they are my family.”

Firefighters were seen using ladder trucks to rescue people from the high-rise. The area has a large Jewish population, and a rescue team of Orthodox Jews called Hatzalah were on the scene to help with body recovery.

Building, area have Argentinian connection

The city of Surfside has long been an enclave of the Argentine-American community after the economic collapse of the 1990s in the South American country. Sounds of porteño Spanish are more common than Caribbean Spanish in some places. Silvana Juárez, 49, of Argentina, lives near the condo building and said her good friends are missing.

“I have three friends and their little girl that are missing,” Juárez told USA TODAY. “My daughter lives in the building next door and my daughter heard a loud explosion.”

What are the condominiums like?

A few two-bedroom units in the development are listed for sale with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000, an Internet search shows.

The building's website promotes "incredible oceanfront views or spectacular views of inter-coastal waterway with the City in the Background." It adds that year-round ocean breezes help keep the temperatures moderate in the summer and winter and that the condos are "located near some of the best shopping Miami has to offer as well as the famous Miami Nightlife."

Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, Ryan Miller, Kate Mabus and Charles Ventura, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Tragedy without precedent': Condo building partially collapses near Miami; at least 1 dead, 99 unaccounted for

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