Crews work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday’s fatal collapse. (Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press)
SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Rescue workers digging for a fifth day into the remnants of a collapsed Florida condo building stressed Monday that they could still find survivors in the rubble, a hope family members clung to even though no one has been pulled out alive since the first hours after the structure fell.
Another body was recovered overnight, bringing the confirmed death toll to 10. But more than 150 people are still missing in Surfside. Their families rode buses Sunday to a nearby site to watch the intense rescue effort, which included firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts using radar and sonar devices.
The pancake collapse of the building left layer upon layer of intertwined debris, frustrating efforts to reach anyone who may have survived in a pocket of space.
“Every time there’s an action, there’s a reaction,” Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said during a news conference. “It’s not an issue of we could just attach a couple of cords to a concrete boulder and lift it and call it a day.” Some of the concrete pieces are smaller, the size of basketballs or baseballs.
Underscoring the risks of the work, he noted that families who rode buses to visit the site on Sunday witnessed a rescuer tumble 25 feet down the pile. Workers and victims must both be considered, he said.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a 12-story building.”
Relatives continued their visits on Monday. From outside a neighboring building, more than two dozen family members watched teams of searchers excavate the building site. Some held onto each other for support. Others hugged and prayed. Some people took photos.
The intense effort includes firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts using radar and sonar devices.
Early Monday, a crane lifted a large slab of concrete from the debris pile, enabling about 30 rescuers in hard hats to move in and carry smaller pieces of debris into red buckets, which are emptied into a larger bin for a crane to remove. The work has been complicated by intermittent rain showers, but the fires that hampered the initial search have been extinguished.
Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer and state fire marshal, said it was the largest deployment of such resources in Florida history that was not due to a hurricane. He said the same number of people were on the ground in Surfside as during Hurricane Michael, a devastating Category 5 hurricane that hit 12 counties in 2018.
“They’re working around the clock,” Patronis said. “They’re working 12 hours at a time, midnight to noon to midnight.”
Andy Alvarez, a deputy incident commander with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that rescuers have been able to find some voids inside the wreckage, mostly in the basement and the parking garage.
“We have over 80 rescuers at a time that are breaching the walls that collapsed, in a frantic effort to try to rescue those that are still viable and to get to those voids that we typically know exist in these buildings,” Alvarez said.
“We have been able to tunnel through the building,” Alvarez said. “This is a frantic search to seek that hope, that miracle, to see who we can bring out of this building alive.”
Others who have seen the wreckage up close were daunted by the task ahead. Alfredo Lopez, who lived with his wife in a sixth-floor corner apartment and narrowly escaped, said he finds it hard to believe anyone is alive in the rubble.
This is a frantic search to seek that hope, that miracle, to see who we can bring out of this building alive.
–Andy Alvarez, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue
“If you saw what I saw: nothingness. And then, you go over there and you see, like, all the rubble. How can somebody survive that?” Lopez told The Associated Press.
Authorities on Monday insisted they are not losing hope.
“We’re going to continue and work ceaselessly to exhaust every possible option in our search,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Monday.
Deciding to transition from search-and-rescue work to a recovery operation is agonizing, said Dr. Joseph A. Barbera, a professor at George Washington University. That decision is fraught with considerations, he said, that only those on the ground can make.
Barbera coauthored a study examining disasters where some people survived under rubble for prolonged periods of time. He has also advised teams on where to look for potential survivors and when to conclude “that the probability of continued survival is very, very small.”
“It’s an incredibly difficult decision, and I’ve never had to make that decision,” Barbera said.
As time goes on, he said, teams will begin a process called “rapid delayering, where you take more risk by moving larger amounts of rubble, because you recognize you’re running up against the time factor for survival.”
How long a person can survive depends on a host of issues, including the availability of water, the severity of any injuries and the degree to which they are trapped, Barbera said.
“The human dimension is huge — the uncertainty that you could be leaving someone alive behind by ending too early,” Barbera said. “Families continue to have hope, as do rescuers, which is why you continue to see them pushing so hard within these difficult conditions.”
The ultimate decision to move into the recovery phase, he said, will have to be made “with the involvement of the political authority because they’re the ultimate authority over this.”
The building collapsed just days before a deadline for condo owners to start making steep payments toward more than $9 million in repairs that had been recommended nearly three years earlier, in a report that warned of “major structural damage.”
A federal team of scientists and engineers are conducting a preliminary investigation at the site and will determine whether to launch a full probe of what caused the building to come down. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also investigated disasters such as the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and a Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people. Previous investigations have taken years to complete.
Despite warning, town deemed condo building in ‘good shape’
Despite an engineer’s warning of major structural problems, a town building official told board members their Florida high-rise condominium was in “very good shape” almost three years before it collapsed, according to minutes of that meeting released Monday.
The Surfside official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto was quoted as making those comments at a meeting of the Champlain Towers South board on Nov. 15, 2018. That was just over a month after engineering firm Morabito Consultants issued a report describing key flaws in the structure.
The discussion with Prieto came as Champlain Towers was beginning to explore what work was needed under city and county ordinances for the building to meet a 40-year recertification that was to arrive in 2021.
The board meeting minutes say that Prieto told them in 2018 the Morabito engineering report had collected the necessary information and “it appears the building is in very good shape.”
A day later, Prieto told the then-town manager of Surfside he thought the meeting was a success and credited Champlain Towers with getting a good early start on the recertification process.
“The response was very positive from everyone in the room,” Prieto wrote in the email, also released by town officials. “All the main concerns over their forty-year recertification process were addressed.”
Yet there is no evidence any of the critical concrete structure work ever started, the documents show. Owners of the 136 units had been told earlier this year they would have to pay their share of a $15 million assessment — $9.1 million of which was major work — by July 1. That assessment ranged from about $80,000 for a one-bedroom unit to more than $330,000 for a penthouse.
Prieto no longer works at Surfside and efforts to locate him Monday for comment were not immediately successful. Prieto previously told the Miami Herald he didn’t remember getting the Morabito report and declined to comment on the November 2018 board meeting.
The minutes were forwarded to Surfside officials on Sunday by an attorney for the board, according to the town.
The Morabito report focused attention on the pool deck, which was found to have waterproofing underneath that had failed and had been laid flat instead of sloping to drain off water. This threatened not only the concrete slab under the pool but also other structural areas.
“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report, which also cited “abundant cracking” in concrete columns and beams.
While numerous theories have emerged, no definitive cause has been identified in Thursday’s collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building that left at least 10 people confirmed dead and 151 missing.
One problem that surfaced back in 2019 involved work at another building adjacent to Champlain Towers South.
“We are concerned that the construction next to (Champlain) is too close,” board member Mara Chouela wrote in an email to Prieto in January 2019. The construction work, she added, is “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”
Prieto responded that Surfside didn’t have an official role in that issue. “There is nothing for me to check. The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas,” he wrote.
Champlain Towers South resident Steven Rosenthal, who lived on the seventh floor and escaped the collapse, said in a negligence lawsuit filed Sunday by his attorney Robert McKee that there were ample signs of danger.
The building board, the lawsuit says, had warnings and other sources of information years ago indicating “the risk or potential indicators of severe building damage or collapse.”
Rosenthal, the lawsuit adds, “lost his home. He lost his personal property obtained over the years. He has been forced into a life with no home or possessions.”
At least two other lawsuits have been filed in the tower’s collapse, including one filed Monday by resident Raysa Rodriguez, who also argued that problems had been brought to the attention of the condo association over the years.
Rodriguez “herself previously experienced issues with the deteriorating building, including on one occasion when a chunk of concrete fell out of the garage ceiling and landed behind her parked car,” the lawsuit states. Her lawsuit said that she sent the association a photo showing a crack in the concrete above her parking space in the garage.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said during a news conference Monday that the minutes of the building board meeting were of some concern but did not elaborate. He said the town continues to gather documentation on the history of Champlain Towers South and inspections of its structural integrity, and is posting them online as they become available.
“We will be 100% transparent,” Burkett said.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami, Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida; Julie Walker in New York and others from around the United States contributed to this report.
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