Lightning streaked the gray skies in Surfside Thursday afternoon as human and canine rescuers delicately picked their way through a pile of rubble nearly two stories high — the remains of a partial collapse of Champlain Towers South Condo, a 12-story building — hoping to hear the cries and scratches of survivors.
As many as 99 people are reported missing, the Miami-Dade County police director said.
The oceanfront condo tower at 8777 Collins Ave. crumpled with “a bang that just kept on going” a little after 1:30 a.m., trapping an unknown number of residents asleep in their beds inside the wreckage.
“It’s the unimaginable,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “It’s a terrible, terrible nightmare that we have here on Surfside.”
Security camera footage of the sudden collapse looked eerily similar to a demolition, minus the flash of explosives. The cause of the collapse of the 40-year-old building is unknown, with one expert deeming it “an oddity of biblical proportions.”
Nearly 12 hours after the collapse, the death toll was uncertain. Officials confirmed at least one death, and said 35 people were pulled from the wreckage, with 10 injured people treated at the scene and two sent to a hospital. Officials estimated that 55 units were involved in the collapse.
At the nearby Surfside Community Center, anxious loved ones and shellshocked evacuees waited for news.
Sally Heyman, a Miami-Dade County commissioner whose district includes Surfside, told WPLG-Channel 10 that 51 building residents were unaccounted for as of noon. Heyman said that information came from four area hospitals where residents had been taken, as well as interviews with people gathered at the emergency reunification center set up to track the names of survivors, injured and the missing.
Rachel Johnson, communications director for Levine Cava, said she couldn’t confirm the tally. “We don’t have an official count,” she said.
“They brought dogs who can sniff for survivors in the rubble,” said Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer. “They aren’t turning up very much. No one is celebrating anyone being pulled out.”
Salzhauer said the building was undergoing a required 40-year recertification to ensure its structural integrity, and that the building’s roof was being redone. She added that residents told her a building inspector had visited Champlain Towers on Wednesday, but she did not know what he found. It is unknown if any construction activity contributed to the disaster.
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“The residents that I talked to were not aware that there was some kind of problem or issue that would cause something like this,” she said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at a press conference one block away from the Champlain Tower, said he toured the scene and it looked worse than what media images captured.
“The TV doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “It is really, really traumatic to see the collapse of a massive structure like that.”
DeSantis thanked first-responders for risking their lives searching for survivors when it was unknown if the building was stable enough to enter.
He said engineers would probe the scene to determine what went wrong.
“You’re not going to have those answers immediately,” he said.
News of the disaster also reached the White House, where President Joe Biden said that he had been briefed about the building collapse and offered federal assistance if needed.
“I spoke with the mayor, I spoke with the congresswoman, and I’ll have more to say about that as well,” Biden said from the White House.
The president spoke with Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava earlier in the day to offer federal assistance, according to a White House official. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain also spoke with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat who represents the area where the collapse occurred, according to the official.
‘PEOPLE CRYING AND SCREAMING FOR HELP’
Alfredo Lopez, 61, was in bed with his wife when he heard a loud boom that he thought was a nasty thunderstorm. Then he heard a second louder crash that shook the bed. His adult son came running in, asking what had happened.
Looking out the window to the west, facing Collins Avenue, the view from his sixth-story corner unit was completely shrouded by dust. Using his phone as a flashlight, he walked to his front door and opened it. The floor extended maybe five feet.
“My neighbor’s apartment was gone. All my neighbors’ apartments were gone,” he said.
Staring at dust and sky where there should have been a hallway, he said he gingerly stepped out of his unit, fearing the floor might cave. He and his family turned the other direction and headed down the emergency stairwell with about 10 other people who were rushing down.
Unable to exit through the lobby door, the group moved down into the flooded parking garage, where cars had been pancaked by the collapse.
Carrying an older woman who was frozen from shock, Lopez and others made their way through a crack in a crumbling wall and past a destroyed pool deck, and onto the beach. By that time, emergency lights cut through the clouds of dust as his neighbors, trapped in the building’s remains, cried out.
“Exiting the pool area, I could hear people crying and screaming for help,” he said.
A DESPERATE RESCUE SCENE
The massive pre-dawn search-and-rescue effort began shortly after. Rescuers from Miami-Dade’s vaunted Urban Search and Rescue Team moved fast to free residents from the warped steel and concrete that trapped them in their homes, sometimes cutting through balconies to reach people.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue used a cherry picker bucket to rescue residents trapped on their balconies, like former Surfside Vice Mayor Barry Cohen. After the explosion woke them up, he and his wife gathered some belongings and opened the door of their condo to find a large pile of rubble and dust. The couple started down the stairs, but warped metal blocked the doorways. The couple tried to escape through the garage, but water poured in and rose above their shins.
They made their way back to their condo, where they shouted for help from the balcony.
“I was worried it was all going to go down,” Cohen said.
Santo Mejil, 50, was roused out of bed when his wife called from a unit on the ninth floor of the south condo, one of three buildings that make up the Champlain Towers complex. She is an overnight caretaker for an elderly disabled woman.
“She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake,” Mejil said.
As he recounted rushing over to the beach from their home near Miami International Airport, his phone rang. It was his wife.
“They’re bringing you down?” he said. Tears welled in his eyes. “Thank God.”
As the sun rose, the rescues got trickier. A mother and child were saved, but the mother’s leg had to be amputated to free her, said Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management.
Just after 8 a.m., Rollason told the Miami Herald emergency workers believed they had cleared all easily reachable survivors from inside the tower.
“Everyone who is alive is out of the building,” he said.
One of the search-and-rescue dogs on scene found someone trapped under a mountain of concrete around that time, who officials first believed to be a child but later identified as an adult woman.
Rollason said they lost voice contact with her shortly after, but they haven’t given up on recovering her.
“We’re still working on getting to her,” he said.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokeswoman Maggie Castro said more than 80 rescue units from all over the county rushed to the initial scene. Well into the morning she said the department was in “100% rescue mode.”
She said the department is using dogs and sensitive microphones and cameras that can pick up the slightest of sounds, even breathing. She also said only so many rescuers could work on top of piles at the same time because no one yet knows how stable it is.
“We have weather to contend with and we have the danger of the building,” Castro said. “We’re very careful not to disturb the pile.”
The equipment being used by search and rescue is so sensitive Castro said, “that we would even be able to hear people scratching.”
She wouldn’t speculate on the death count caused by the catastrophic collapse of the building.
HOW MANY MISSING?
Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul said authorities are compiling a list of residents who remain unaccounted for following the partial collapse at the Champlain Towers. Paul estimated that there are more than a dozen missing residents.
“We’re working on a list,” she said.
A Realtor with Compass who has multiple listings in the building told the Herald about 70% of the 130 units were occupied at the time by primary or secondary homeowners. It’s unclear how many other units were in use for short-term rentals.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he was not sure where the reported number of 51 missing residents came from and could not confirm that number. He said authorities are compiling names called into Surfside’s missing person’s hotline.
“I think we’re trying to piece together who’s missing by tallying up those calls,” he said.
Burkett said the building manager does not keep a log of residents, but logs visitors. First responders were using the list to try and account for the missing.
Dozens gathered at the town’s community center, where the Red Cross is assisting those who are waiting to hear about missing loved ones. Also there are the evacuees of nearby condo towers and hotels, who are hoping for information on a place to stay and how to gather their belongings.
Rollason said the building to the south, which is newer, is far enough away that it appears to be fine for now. The building on the north, he said, is older and has been evacuated. The Solara Surfside hotel, which is next to the tower, has also been evacuated.
Some relatives gathered outside the various hospitals where their loved ones were sent.
Adriana Chi waited outside Jackson’s Ryder Trauma Center shortly before 7 on Thursday morning, worried about two relatives inside and another she can’t locate.
She said her brother, sister-and-law and teenage niece live in a ninth-floor unit there. She was able to speak to her niece ahead of her emergency surgery at Ryder. She said the 16-year-old recalled being woken up by her mother to a shaking building, then had the sensation of the floor giving way.
“She felt the building shake,” said Chi, a nurse practitioner. “Then everything collapsed.”
Chi said her sister-in-law, a psychologist, was brought to Ryder as well but she doesn’t know the whereabouts of her brother, a lawyer.
Chi said her father has owned the unit for about 30 years. She said leaks were a chronic problem, leading to a nagging worry for her.
“The last time I was there, I looked at him and I said: ‘I am serious,’ " she recalled between tearful cellphone calls by the hospital’s driveway and hugs with other family members gathered outside. “‘This building is going to collapse.’”
HOW DID THE BUILDING COLLAPSE?
Burkett, the mayor, noted that the building is not as old as many in the surrounding area, and that “there is no reason for a building to come down like that.” There are one-foot gaps between stories where there used to be 10, he said.
“This doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’ve been here my whole life, and I haven’t seen anything like this happen.”
When asked if he believed the collapse was an accident, Burkett wouldn’t say.
“What I can say is that a building has fallen down .... I expect that this building is not salvageable at this point.”
He said there had been construction work on the building’s roof over the last 30 days, and that “we’re certainly going to look at that.”
Peter Dyga, president and CEO of a Florida chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction trade association, called the partial collapse at the Champlain Towers “an oddity of biblical proportions.”
“People have to remember, there are thousands of buildings of this height or taller in South Florida, millions worldwide ... This does not happen. Clearly, something was wrong,” Dyga said.
“We need to find what happened and make sure if there was any kind of negligence we hold people accountable,” Dyga said.
Dyga urged Floridians not to jump to conclusions as investigators assess architectural plans, engineering calculations, construction materials, and maintenance records to try to determine what went wrong.
“This is going to be probably multiple years in trying to figure out what happened here. There are so many variables,” he said. “It’s probably more than likely going to be a combination of bad things.”
To Floridians living in other high-rise condos, Dyga stressed calm. “People do not have to worry about their building falling down,” he said.
By Joey Flechas, Douglas Hanks, Samantha J. Gross, Charles Rabin, Sarah Blaskey and Alex Harris of the Miami Herald. Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and David J. Neal contributed to this story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.