Death Toll in Florida Building Collapse Rises to 12 With 149 Missing

By Reuters
June 29, 2021 Updated: June 29, 2021

SURFSIDE, Fla.—Search-and-rescue efforts stretched through a sixth day on Tuesday at the site of a collapsed Florida condominium complex where at least a dozen people died and 149 more remained missing amid fading hopes of finding anyone else alive.

Remains of the 12th casualty in the disaster, which could rank as the deadliest accidental structural failure in U.S. history, were recovered on Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at an afternoon news conference.

Investigators have not yet determined what caused a major section of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South condo to give way abruptly early on Thursday as residents slept.

Initial attention has focused on structural deficiencies described in a 2018 engineer’s report.

In April 2021, the condominium association’s president warned residents that concrete damage identified in the report had “gotten significantly worse” and urged them to pay some $15 million in assessments needed to make repairs, according to media accounts.

Florida emergency management director Kevin Guthrie said local authorities on Tuesday had asked the federal government to send additional urban search-and-rescue teams to the scene in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.

Rescue workers work in the rubble
Rescue workers work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo is seen in Surfside, Fla., on June 25, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

Authorities said they held out hope that survivors might yet be located in the pile of pulverized concrete and twisted metal left when nearly half of the 12-story, 136-unit tower caved in on itself. The search operation has been hampered by intermittent showers and thunderstorms.

“The rescue effort continues unabated except for that brief lightning storm we had today,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

No one has been pulled alive from the wreckage since a few hours after one side of the high-rise crumbled into a heap, and the prospects for achieving another rescue grew dimmer by the hour.

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.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said search-and-rescue personnel faced a daunting task while working 12-hour shifts in the heat and humidity.

“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.”

On Monday evening, Levine Cava used grim terms to describe the anguish faced by families of the missing.

“They are coping with the news that they might not have loved ones come out alive and still hoping that they will,” the mayor said. “Their loved ones may come out as body parts.”

collapsed condo
Rubble hangs from a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, Fla., on June 24, 2021. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden to Visit

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

A makeshift memorial erected 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.”

The tragedy has sent agencies in surrounding areas scrambling to check the safety of buildings.

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 older. The cities of Miami and Miami Beach have announced similar measures.

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.

The 2018 engineer’s report warned of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab beneath the pool deck and 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,” Burkett told CNN when asked about the April warning by the condo association’s president. “Buildings in America just don’t fall down like this.”

miami building collapse
The wreckage of a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, Fla., on June 25, 2021. (Gianrigo Marletta/AFP via Getty Images)

A lawyer who works with the condo 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.

By Gabriella Borter