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Rescuers redouble efforts at collapsed Florida building, 150 still missing

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(C) Reuters. Rescue personnel work at the scene of the partially collapsed Champlain South Towers condominium in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, in this undated recent photograph. Courtesy of Florida Task Force 3 / via REUTERS

2/6

By Gabriella Borter

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) -With 150 people still missing nearly a week after the collapse of a Florida high-rise condominium, authorities on Tuesday said rescuers had redoubled efforts to find any survivors even as officials sought to explain the formidable hurdles facing search teams.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters that no bodies had been recovered from the rubble since Monday, keeping the official death toll at 11.

What caused a major section of the 40-year-old building to suddenly crumble into a heap remains under investigation. Initial attention has focused on structural deficiencies described in a 2018 engineer’s report.

In April 2021, the condo association’s president warned residents that concrete damage had “gotten significantly worse” along with roof damage, and urged them to pay some $15 million in assessments needed to make repairs, media reported.

Authorities on Tuesday held out the possibility that survivors might yet be found in the pile of concrete and twisted metal left when nearly half of the 12-story, 136-unit tower caved in on itself.

“The way I look at it as an old Navy guy is that when somebody is missing in the military, you’re missing until you’re found, and we don’t stop the search,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news briefing. “Those first-responders are breaking their back, trying to find anybody they can.”

Officials said late on Monday that emergency teams were still treating the round-the-clock operation – which has employed dog teams, cranes and infrared scanners – as a search-and-rescue effort.

But no one has been extricated alive from the ruins of the oceanfront Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside since a few hours after one side of the high-rise collapsed early on Thursday as residents slept.

Fire officials have spoken of detecting faint sounds from inside the rubble pile and finding voids deep in the debris large enough to possibly sustain life.

But Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky laid out the difficulties facing the 210 search-and-rescue personnel working 12-hour shifts in the heat.

“That building collapsed almost in a footprint of where that building stood – we’re talking about 12 stories, with subterranean garages all within that same footprint,” Cominsky said. “I’m sure to emphasize the magnitude of what we encountered, what we’re seeing,” he told reporters.

Rescue workers have moved 3 million pounds of concrete “piece by piece” from the debris since the collapse, Cominsky said.

“We continue to search (the) grid, layer by layer, removing debris as we continue to move forward.” The teams include experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search.

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, will visit Surfside on Thursday, the White House said.

“They want to thank the heroic first responders, search-and-rescue teams and everyone who has been working tirelessly around the clock, and meet with the families who have been forced to endure this terrible tragedy,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The disaster has led officials in nearby areas scrambling to check the safety of buildings.

Miami Beach, just to the south of Surfside, has ordered a “walkthrough visual” inspection of about 500 multi-family commercial units over the next week, Mayor Dan Gelber said.

“But at the same time we are going to require within probably three weeks, all of these buildings in the recertification process to come up with an updated report,” Gelber told CNN.

The tragedy may end up ranking as the greatest loss of life from an accidental building collapse in U.S. history.

A makeshift memorial a block from the site held bouquets of fresh hydrangeas tucked into a chain-link fence. A poster board with hearts had a message for the first responders: “Thank you for looking for my grandmother.”

GRAND JURY

Miami-Dade Mayor Levine Cava said she had spoken on Tuesday with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. A grand jury has yet to be impaneled, Levine Cava said, but when it is, “we will be fully on board.”

The 2018 engineer’s report warned of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab beneath the pool deck and concrete deterioration, including exposed rebar, in the underground parking garage. The report’s author, Frank Morabito, wrote that the deterioration would “expand exponentially” if not repaired.

“It’s all starting to come together now, because like I’ve said all along, there was something very, very wrong at this building,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told CNN on Tuesday when asked about the April 2021 warning by the condo association’s president. “Buildings in America just don’t fall down like this.”

Burkett said the condominium association officials probably did not grasp the intensity of the issue. “Obviously, that was a fatal mistake,” he said.

A lawyer who works with the association, Donna DiMaggio Berger, previously said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area.

Ross Prieto, then Surfside’s top building official, met with residents weeks after the report was produced and assured them the building was “in very good shape,” according to minutes of the meeting released on Monday.

Reuters was unable to reach Prieto, who is no longer employed by Surfside. He told the Miami Herald newspaper he did not remember getting the report.

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