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Death toll hits 11 in Florida condo collapse on fifth day of search for 150 missing

The rescue workers on 12-hour shifts used a crane to remove a 25,000-pound chunk of concrete.
Rescue workers search Monday in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside. The death toll has reached 10.
Rescue workers search Monday in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside. The death toll has reached 10. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Jun. 28, 2021|Updated Jun. 29, 2021

SURFSIDE — The fifth day of an unprecedented international rescue effort brought only grim news: Two more bodies were pulled from the twisted metal and concrete ruins of Champlain Towers South, raising the death toll Monday to 11 and dimming prospects of finding survivors.

The announcement Monday night of the latest body to be discovered means that 150 people remain unaccounted for in what could become one of the nation’s deadliest mass-casualty events.

“Our teams have made significant progress on the site,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Cava Levine said at an evening press conference. “These numbers are very fluid and they will change.”

Also on Monday, as relatives of the missing embarked on a second accompanied visit to the disaster scene to grieve, state and federal authorities pledged additional manpower to find survivors — and understand why the 12-story building suddenly collapsed in the middle of the night.

Florida’s chief financial officer and fire marshal, Jimmy Patronis, said that all eight of the state’s Urban Search & Rescue teams, or 370 people, have now been deployed to Surfside. The deployment is the largest nonhurricane assignment in state history, his office announced.

The rescue workers on 12-hour shifts used a crane to remove a 25,000-pound chunk of concrete, a plan that had to approved by engineers because of the danger of the pile shifting too drastically.

“These are our neighbors, our loved ones,” Patronis said.

And the White House said that over 50 federal employees have been dispatched to Surfside, including those from the FBI, the Occupational Safety and Hazard and Health Administration and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, which may wind up leading the probe.

“The goal, of course, is to get to the bottom of what happened, and of course, how to be an instructive guide on how to prevent it from happening in the future,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing Monday.

Portions of the Champlain tower, 8777 Collins Ave., collapsed early Thursday, as dozens of residents and guests were sleeping. The stunning images and surveillance video of the collapse have shocked the country and led to increased scrutiny on older condo buildings in South Florida.

Clues about the state of the 40-year-old Champlain building have been trickling out since the collapse.

The Miami Herald revealed that Surfside’s chief building official told the Champlain Towers South Condo board the building was in “very good shape” a month after a preliminary engineer’s report in 2018 revealed “major structural damage.” The report showed no indication that a collapse was possible, but it did hint at nearly $10 million worth of repairs.

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On Monday, a pool contractor told the Miami Herald that 36 hours before the collapse, he saw alarming pools of standing water in the basement-level garage, as well as cracking concrete and severely corroded rebar under the swimming pool.

Six engineering experts have also told the Herald that from earlier reviews of photos, videos, engineering reports and a witness account, the collapse may have originated from a structural column or concrete slab beneath the pool deck.

Miami-Dade County, Miami and Sunny Isles Beach have all announced immediate, unprecedented audits of older structures ahead of mandatory 40-year recertifications. Cava Levine said Monday that 14 buildings in unincorporated Miami-Dade have recently begun the process of being recertified.

“So far, we are confident that things are safe but if we find any life safety issues we will move very deliberately,” she said.

In other developments:

—Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle on Monday said she would ask a grand jury to examine the condo collapse, and safety issues raised by the tragedy. It’s not uncommon for grand juries to examine broader issues of public safety — such as lax building codes after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead and South Miami-Dade in 1992.

The current grand jury will have a break and won’t return until August. But it’s unclear whether the investigation into the Champlain collapse will be far enough along to give jurors this session an in-depth look at the evidence in the case.

“I am going to urge them to take a look at it,” she said, adding: “Whether they do or not, it’s completely their decision.”

Kionne McGhee, a Miami-Dade commissioner and former prosecutor, on Monday urged Fernandez Rundle to go to the grand jury and “issue indictments if appropriate.” A grand jury, as can the prosecutor’s office itself, can also levy criminal charges, if warranted.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, for example, filed third-degree felony murder and manslaughter charges in the 1996 accidental crash of ValuJet 592. In another high-profile tragedy, the state attorney’s office is still reviewing the case of the 2018 collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University, which killed six people.

—The state attorney’s office also announced it was activating its price gouging hotline after law enforcement received tips that area hotels have raised their prices.

“Now that the Governor has declared a state of emergency, price gouging is a criminal offense. We are joining efforts with the Miami-Dade Police Department to combat any greedy individuals and businesses that may use unprecedented events like the Surfside tragedy to take advantage of our community’s fundamental needs by unnecessarily hiking prices to outrageous levels,” she said in a statement.

—A group of families was ferried Monday to the rubble to get a first look at rescue efforts. The visits were arranged because families have raised concerns about the slow pace of the rescue efforts.

On Monday, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief of Operations Ray Jadallah on Monday said family members got to see how complex and dangerous the rubble is — relatives saw a firefighter slip 25 feet down a pile of rubble. He stressed that the effort is not shifting into recovery mode. “We’re just not there yet,” he said.

—A second civil lawsuit was filed Monday over the Surfside collapse. Survivor Steve Rosenthal, of Unit 705, filed the lawsuit in circuit court alleging “that the entire structure was deteriorating and becoming susceptible to catastrophic loss by collapse.”

“Many of his friends who lived within the building have not been heard from and are presumed dead in this collapse,” lawyer Robert McKee wrote of his client in the lawsuit.

—The Miami Marlins and the Miami Marlins Foundation announced a new fund to help people affected by the Surfside tragedy. In all, the Surfside Relief Fund started with donations of $250,000, including $50,000 each from Marlins owner Bruce Sherman and Anthony Hsieh, the founder of LoanDepot, which has the naming rights for the Marlins’ stadium.

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