Search of Collapsed Florida Building Enters Seventh Day With 12 Dead, 149 Missing

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) -
Emergency workers conduct search-and-rescue efforts at the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, Tuesday. (Reuters/Joe Skipper)

Rescue crews toiling into a seventh day on Wednesday combed through shattered ruins of a collapsed Miami-area condominium tower where 12 people were confirmed dead as hope faded for 149 people missing and believed trapped in the rubble.

Authorities have left open the possibility that survivors might be found in the debris after a major section of the 12-floor, 136-unit complex caved in on itself early last Thursday as residents slept.

“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.”

But nobody has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverized concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours of the disaster nearly a week ago, and prospects of further rescues fade by the hour.

Investigators have not concluded what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South condo to crumple, in what could rank as the deadliest accidental structural failure in U.S. history.

But a 2018 engineer’s report prepared ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies now at the focus of inquiries into what triggered the disaster.

As recently as April, the condo association’s president warned residents in a letter that severe concrete damage identified by the engineer around the base of the building had since grown “significantly worse.”

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would convene a special grand jury, apart from any potential criminal investigation, to examine building safety and “what steps we can take to safeguard our residents” from similar disasters in the future.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said search teams had extricated the remains of a 12th victim on Tuesday, leaving 149 people unaccounted for.

A day earlier she used dire terms in relating how families of the missing were “coping with the news that they might not have loved ones come out alive and still hoping that they will.”

“Their loved ones may come out as body parts,” she said.

President Joe Biden and his wife planned to pay a visit on Thursday to the scene of the tragedy in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach, the White House said.

Few if any signs of life have been detected in the wreckage since last Thursday.

Fire officials have spoken of hearing faint sounds from inside the rubble pile – they acknowledged such noises could come from settling of the ruins – and finding voids deep in the debris large enough to possibly sustain life.

But Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said on Tuesday that search-and-rescue personnel faced a daunting task while working in 12-hour shifts in the heat and humidity, hampered by intermittent showers and thunderstorms.

“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.

Florida emergency management director Kevin Guthrie said authorities on Tuesday had asked the federal government to provide an additional urban search-and-rescue team to aid in the effort.

The tragedy has sent agencies in surrounding areas scrambling to check building safety.

Levine Cava said she has directed Miami-Dade County officials to begin a 30-day audit of all residential properties five stories or higher that are 40 years or more old. The cities of Miami and Miami Beach have announced similar measures.