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Fifth body found as search for collapse survivors continues in Miami

Smoke and flames are hindering the search. Miami-Dade’s mayor ordered an audit of all high-rises over five stories tall and more than 40-years-old.
Rescue workers search in the rubble for survivors at the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday.
Rescue workers search in the rubble for survivors at the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Jun. 26, 2021|Updated Jun. 26, 2021

SURFSIDE — A fifth body was pulled from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside on Saturday afternoon and other human remans located, as the search and rescue operation entered its third day, dimming hopes that anyone would be found alive in the wreckage.

By late afternoon, voluntary evacuations were also underway at two other buildings, Champlain Towers North and East — the North of the same age and similar design to the South Condo, the crumbled building, which had been flagged as having “major structural damage at least three years ago.

Search and rescue crews swept the mammoth pile of rubble with canines and sonar using a grid system to identify possible survivors. Most of the day, they faced rain and a stubborn fire smoldering below the collapsed structure. Meanwhile, elected leaders sought to reassure residents of other high-rise buildings that their structures are safe.

Family members have been asked to provide DNA to help identify the remains. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 130 people have been accounted for and 156 were still missing.

From Miami-Dade to the Florida Governor’s Mansion and federal agencies, government officials pledged to send more support for victims and families while they work to find answers for the unimaginable tragedy that killed at least four people and buried potentially dozens more in a pile of crumbled concrete and twisted steel.

Search and rescue remained the priority as of Saturday afternoon, even as the subterranean fire slowed search-and-rescue teams carrying on the dire but delicate work of picking over and tunneling through the two-story-high pile of debris that once held more than 50 homes.

Levine Cava said that progress has been made in abating the fire that hampered search efforts. A sweep of the pile with dogs has been conducted, she said, and responders continue to aim to minimize use of heavy equipment.

Rescue workers had carved a trench in the wreckage, trying to isolate the fire and search the portion of the pile not affected by smoke or flames. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said, and crews brought in ventilators to help clear the air but that they must be used judiciously because too much added air might intensify the smoke and fire.

In this aerial image search and rescue workers work the site of an oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed, in Surfside on Friday. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says rescue officials are continuing to search Friday and there's still hope of finding survivors in the rubble more than 24 hours after the building collapsed.
In this aerial image search and rescue workers work the site of an oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed, in Surfside on Friday. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says rescue officials are continuing to search Friday and there's still hope of finding survivors in the rubble more than 24 hours after the building collapsed. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

While first responders continued to work through the wreckage, other developments included:

▪ Levine Cava ordered an immediate audit of all high rises older than 40 years and taller than five stories, as well as those built by the same developer that constructed the Champlain Towers condominium complex. It is not clear how many buildings will be audited, but Levine Cava said the review would be conducted “within the next 30 days, starting right now.”

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▪ Mandatory evacuations were ordered at the crumbled condominium’s sister tower, Champlain Towers North. The towers were built the same year, 1981, using the same designer. A voluntary evacuation was underway at at least one other building nearby.

▪ The next of kin of three people previously pronounced dead and pulled from the rubble have now been notified, Levine Cava said. She said she would not be naming those three victims out of respect for the families.

▪ A team of scientists and engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a little-known sub-agency of the Department of Commerce that investigated the fall of the Twin Towers after 9/11, arrived Friday at the Surfside site. Their goal: to decide whether their agency should to launch a full investigation into the catastrophe, and then to begin the painstaking process of determining what went wrong.

New details emerged that may begin to explain how such a monumental and deadly collapse could have occurred. In a 2018 report about the Champlain Towers South Condo, an engineer flagged a “major error” dating back to the building’s origin where lack of proper drainage on the pool deck had caused “major structural damage,” according to records released late Friday night by Surfside officials.

A lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade circuit court by one resident, Manuel Drezner, alleging that the building’s homeowner’s association knew the building was unsafe but failed to inform residents.

Levine Cava, speaking at a press conference on Saturday, emphasized that hope is not lost for the many people anxiously awaiting word from their missing loved ones who may have been in the part of the building that collapsed early Thursday.

“Our top priority now continues to be search and rescue,” she said.

Speaking at the same media briefing, Gov. Ron DeSantis added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on site and collaborating with state and local officials to continue the search-and-rescue effort.

“We’re working well,” he said.

In the absence of answers to their questions — about what caused the collapse, the whereabouts of family members, or why such a tragedy would happen — many turned to faith to pull them through the trauma of the unimaginable catastrophe.

At the reunification center six blocks to the north of the partially collapsed tower, families waited at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside for any bit of news about their loved ones.

At about 8:15 a.m., 16 South Florida members of Legendarios, a Christian faith-based organization, arrived at the center with donuts and beverages for the waiting families and polic e officers. They formed a prayer circle on the curb outside the hotel and prayed together with officers before walking over to the site of the collapse.

“The community has come together in tremendous ways. We just wanted to add the prayer part to it,” said Mauricio Jaramillo, a member of the organization. “We’ve talked to a couple of people about what’s been going on, not knowing what’s happening. There’s a lot of questions. People want answers and we are here to pray.”

Miami-Dade Police Officer Barbara Jenkins comforts a woman who is trying to get closer to the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, where her daughter is reported missing after the building collapsed early Thursday morning. The number of people who are unaccounted for stands at 159.
Miami-Dade Police Officer Barbara Jenkins comforts a woman who is trying to get closer to the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, where her daughter is reported missing after the building collapsed early Thursday morning. The number of people who are unaccounted for stands at 159.

Audit for older high-rises

With no new survivors or bodies recovered from the site as of Saturday morning, Levine Cava sought to reassure Miami-Dade residents of high-rise condominiums and apartment complexes that their buildings are safe and not likely to collapse.

“We want to make sure that every building has completed their recertification process,” she said, referring to the county’s requirement that all buildings be inspected for structural integrity at the 40-year mark. “We want to move swiftly to remediate any issues that may have been identified in that process.”

Levine Cava called on local cities to help with an “aggressive review” of all high rises, following a similar announcement earlier this week by the city of Miami’s building department for all buildings six stories or higher that are 40 years or older.

The majority of residential towers in Miami-Dade — 70.2% of the county’s total 1,016,653 single-family homes, condos and apartment buildings — were built before 1990, two years before Hurricane Andrew led to the hardening of South Florida’s building code.

Firefighters pour water on the ruble of the Champlain Towers South Condo on Friday as thick smoke from a fire within fills the air in Surfside.
Firefighters pour water on the ruble of the Champlain Towers South Condo on Friday as thick smoke from a fire within fills the air in Surfside. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

A deep-seated fire

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the subterranean blaze was likely due to “fuel of the cars getting crushed and fluid leaking out. Fortunately, they’re tracing the gases and there are no explosive gases at this point.”

Between 80 and 120 first responders — members of Miami-Dade’s renowned Urban Search and Rescue Team bolstered by teams rushing in from around the state — worked overnight Friday and into Saturday morning.

No one has been pulled alive from the building’s remains since Thursday morning, when firefighters rescued a boy trapped in the rubble.

Search dogs trained to find the living were joined by dogs trained to find the dead. Teams began placing little red flags on spots on broken concrete slabs, some that one source briefed on the search said might indicate human remains — critical for DNA identification of victims.

Rachel Spiegel, right, is hugged Saturday by the Mayor of Surfside Charles Burkett, left, as she asks for information about the 12-story beachfront condo building which partially collapsed in the Surfside area of Miami. Spiegel's mother Judy lives in the building and is missing.
Rachel Spiegel, right, is hugged Saturday by the Mayor of Surfside Charles Burkett, left, as she asks for information about the 12-story beachfront condo building which partially collapsed in the Surfside area of Miami. Spiegel's mother Judy lives in the building and is missing. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Option to evacuate

Surfside’s mayor said town officials are considering an evacuation of the Champlain Towers South’s sister building. The condominium complex is made up of three residential towers. The partial collapse was in the 136-unit South tower. Its remaining homes have been evacuated. The North and East towers continue to house residents.

If those in the still-standing Champlain Towers North want to move out, then they can do so with FEMA’s assistance, Burkett said.

But the town of Surfside isn’t ordering anyone to move yet.

“There seems to be a consensus that we don’t want to make anybody do anything,” Burkett said. “What we want to do is give them options and make them feel safe. And keep them safe.”

Burkett added that town officials “will talk to the condo board and make them aware of our concerns”

Rescue workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building  partially collapsed on Thursday.
Rescue workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

‘Major error’ in structure

As the search-and-rescue effort transforms into a recovery, Surfside officials released records late Friday night that shed new light on the building’s structural integrity.

The concern was laid out in an October 2018, “Structural Field Survey Report,” produced for the condo association by engineer Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants. Morabito wrote that the “main issue” at Champlain Towers was that the pool deck and outdoor planters “laid on a flat structure” preventing water from draining. The lack of waterproofing was “a systemic issue” that traced back to a flaw “in the development of the original contract documents” 40 years ago, the report said.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the issue was repaired or whether it could have ultimately contributed to the partial collapse.

The report documented how the years of standing water on the pool deck had severely damaged the concrete structural slabs below. The problem needed to be addressed quickly, Morabito wrote.

Workers on Saturday search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside. One hundred fifty-nine people were still unaccounted for two days after Thursday's collapse, which killed at least four.
Workers on Saturday search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside. One hundred fifty-nine people were still unaccounted for two days after Thursday's collapse, which killed at least four. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

Search for answers

Returning to Surfside for the third day on Saturday, DeSantis said he still had hope that more survivors would be found.

“You wake up in the morning hoping that more and more people were pulled out,” he said at the disaster command center on Saturday, “and that news just hasn’t been what we had hoped.”

DeSantis said local, state and federal agencies are collaborating on the rescue effort. “We’re working well,” he said.

On Friday, the governor addressed mounting questions about the absence of any explanation for the collapse and said he had been conferring with Levine Cava about the need for answers.

DeSantis said on Friday that he spoke with President Joe Biden, who “reiterated his administration’s full support” and offered “investigative personnel.” DeSantis also offered the state’s full cooperation to find answers.

“I think there’s a lot of other people throughout this community and really throughout Florida who want to know: How could a building just collapse like that,’' he said.

Leo Soto, who created this memorial with grocery stores donating flowers and candles, pauses Friday in front of photos of some of the missing people that he put on a fence, near the site of an oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed in Surfside.
Leo Soto, who created this memorial with grocery stores donating flowers and candles, pauses Friday in front of photos of some of the missing people that he put on a fence, near the site of an oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed in Surfside. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

The missing

Though county officials said 127 people are now accounted for, Levine Cava stressed that all the numbers are “fluid” because some residents may not have been in the building when it collapsed.

The list of 159 unaccounted people was compiled from missing person reports and data collected at the reunification site at the Surfside Community Center, which was emptied Friday afternoon as family members transitioned to a new center at the Grand Beach Hotel one block north of the disaster site.

People with missing loved ones should call the family reunification hotline at 305-614-1819, visit the family reunification center, which moved Friday to the Grand Beach Hotel, 9449 Collins Ave., or open a missing person report online. Those who survived the collapse should fill out a wellness check form online.

Leo Soto, 26, a former high school classmate of missing person, Nicky Langesfeld, speaks with the media about how he erected a make-shift memorial for people to gather and pray at, for the missing people near the site of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South Condo in the Surfside community of Miami Beach, Florida, on Friday, June 25, 2021. The 12-story oceanfront condo tower at 8777 Collins Ave. crumpled just after 1:30 a.m., on Thursday June 24, trapping an unknown number of residents asleep in their beds inside the wreckage. Daniel A. Varela DVARELA@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Among those still missing are Cassie Stratton, who lived in the Champlain Towers South condo with her husband, Mike Stratton. A political strategist, he had left Monday on a business trip for Washington, D.C., where he got a frantic call from his wife early Thursday morning about their condo building shaking. Then the line went dead.

“It was 1:30 a.m., I’ll never, never forget that,” he said.

Now Cassie Stratton, a 40-year-old model, actress and Pilates instructor, is one of the unaccounted for — feared to be trapped under the rubble as Miami-Dade search and rescue teams continue looking for those still alive.

“She was the most fun, vivacious person you could ever imagine,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “She was full of life, we were always doing something.”

People on Thursday look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside.
People on Thursday look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]

Latin American victims

About 30 people from Latin America and the Caribbean — including Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Argentina — are among those reported missing by friends and family following the collapse, highlighting the international reach of the tragedy.

While the cause of the 12-story oceanfront condo tower’s collapse remains unknown, Levine Cava and other county officials confirmed that there was no sinkhole under the building.

Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said crews brought in heavy machinery Friday night to remove rubble from above. The rescuers boring through the concrete from the garage under the building are only entering the passageways after structural engineers determine what is safe and where pylons should be placed to bolster support.

Asked if he believes there is a chance of anyone still being alive, Jadallah would only say, “We have hope.”

Miami Herald staff writers Bianca Padró Ocasio, Samantha J. Gross, Douglas Hanks, Rob Wile, Martin Vassolo, Taylor Dolven, Jay Weaver, Ben Conarck, Alex Harris, Sarah Blaskey, Aaron Leibowitz, Rene Rodriguez, Rebecca San Juan and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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