SURFSIDE, Fla. — Families of missing Surfside condo building residents waited Tuesday for a miracle that never came, despite the “grueling” six-day effort by rescue crews looking to find someone alive in the rubble of the collapsed tower.
The official count of fatalities rose to 12 by Tuesday night, but authorities were not giving up with 149 people unaccounted for and a nation watching the disaster response at the Champlain Towers South condominium.
What surfaced instead was an alarming letter sent to homeowners on April 9 outlining how damage to the 12-story building’s basement garage had “gotten significantly worse,” amid other signs of an “accelerating” concrete failure since an inspection about 2 1/2 years earlier.
This revelation follows the opening of government investigations, the filing of multiple civil lawsuits and, in the coming months, the empaneling of a criminal grand jury, all with the aim of determining what caused the collapse, who to hold accountable, and how to prevent it from happening elsewhere.
The letter, first revealed by USA Today, informed residents the building’s roof had become “much worse” and required additional major repairs, with total price tag for all of the work soaring from about $9.1 million in 2018 to $16.2 million this year.
“A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by. But this is where we are now,” wrote Jean Wodnicki, president of the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, as confirmed to The Associated Press by a board spokesman.
These issues were first brought to light in a 2018 inspection by Morabito Consultants. That review found a “major error” in the design of the building, crumbling concrete columns in the garage area beneath the structure, and predicted that failure to fix the problems in the “near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”
State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said she will ask a grand jury to examine the condo collapse and related public safety issues. In a statement released Tuesday, Rundle acknowledged that the work to identify exactly what caused the collapse will not be a quick process.
“It is painstaking and complicated work,” Rundle, in part, said in the statement. “I will not do anything to jeopardize their investigative findings which will hopefully prevent future tragedies like this from happening.”
But she doesn’t want to wait.
“To that end, I plan to request that our Grand Jury look at what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations,” the statement said.
Grand juries sometimes look at broader issues of public safety, with subpar building codes coming into focus after Hurricane Andrew hit the region in 1992. A grand jury also can bring forward criminal charges. The state attorney’s office is still reviewing the case of the deadly 2018 collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University, according to the Miami Herald.
The latest lawsuit over the Surfside tower collapse was filed Monday by survivor Raysa Rodriguez, who owned Unit 907 and escaped the wreckage by making her way down a stairwell to safety. Her attorneys — the Moskowitz Law Firm, Jack Scarola and Chip Merlin — brought the class-action claim against the condo association, but noted, “There will be many people to blame for the tragic collapse.”
“These failures could be originated from the unfit material used during the construction of the building, progressed through the years due to the neglect of the Building Association/Management, and in the end resulting in the collapse of the building,” the lawyers wrote in the case filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Reports continued to emerge about warnings of structural failures and defects in the 12-story building before it suddenly fell in the overnight hours last Thursday.
A commercial pool contractor who visited the building on June 22, only days before it collapsed, told the Herald that he thought there was nothing unusual at the condo — until he saw the basement-level garage.
The man, who asked not to be named, was preparing a bid for pool work to be included in the multimillion-dollar restoration project that just was getting underway. He was troubled by what he saw and photographed in the basement-level parking garage — cracking concrete and severely corroded rebar under the pool.
“There was standing water all over the parking garage,” the contractor told the Herald.
A building staff member who showed him around the area told the contractor that it was likely waterproofing issues, but the contractor told the Herald, “I thought to myself, that’s not normal.”
The contractor noted that he was told that pumps could not keep up with standing water in the Champlain Towers South.
Authorities say they have no plans to halt rescue efforts they say are unprecedented for an emergency in Florida aside from a hurricane response. More than 400 workers from across the state and from Israel and Mexico have joined the crusade.
Usually six or seven squads, each with six members, rotate in and out every 45 minutes during 12-hour shifts. They already have moved over 3 million pounds of concrete rubble, officials said.
With relatives imploring the rescuers to increase the pace, the dangerous work has persisted through rainstorms and sweltering heat.
“It is such painstaking, grueling work,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. “They live to save lives.”
While there have been no sight or sounds of survivors since the hours immediately following the destruction, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett insisted: “Nobody’s giving up hope here. Nobody’s stopping.”
Burkett cited the case of a woman who was found alive 17 days after a garment factory collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Added Gov. Ron DeSantis: “You’re missing until you’re found. We don’t stop the search.”
The governor said he met with relatives of people missing from the building, and he noted how the stories of the victims “have touched people all across the world.”
“It has been very heartbreaking, very touching,” DeSantis said. Families have been told the rescue efforts were continuing around the clock.
Levine Cava said checking the list of those still missing has been a challenging task. Officials are working through the list to provide a more accurate number in the coming days by checking for any possible duplicates.
Levine Cava said multiple family members and distant friends are calling to report the same person, some are calling from overseas and sometimes they may only have the name or unit number for a person, not both.
Kevin Guthrie, Florida Division of Emergency Management director, said they have requested another urban search and rescue crew to be able to rotate out crews in the event that the two tropical waves in the Atlantic head for Florida.
Officials have learned of at least one fraudulent website that is seeking to collect donations for those affected by the collapse, Guthrie said.
Deciding to transition from search and rescue work to a recovery operation is agonizing, Dr. Joseph A. Barbera, a professor at George Washington University, told The Associated Press. That decision is fraught with considerations, he said, that only those on the ground can make.
Barbera co-authored a study examining disasters where some people survived under rubble for prolonged periods of time. He told the AP 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.”
Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun, spiritual leader of the Skylake Synagogue in North Miami Beach, told CNN that three of his Orthodox Jewish congregants are among the missing. For their families bracing for the unknown, “Fear is constant and overwhelming,” he said.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are planning to travel to Surfside on Thursday to visit with the families of victims and rescue workers, according to the White House.
On Monday, his administration said it supports a full examination of what caused the Surfside tragedy that includes the deployment of experts from multiple federal agencies including emergency managers and the FBI.
At the Tuesday morning news conference, Levine Cava said a building audit in the county had prompted the immediate closure of four balconies in a building in the northeast part of Miami-Dade County.
The sweeping review includes structures four stories and taller in the county that are approaching the 40-year recertification mark, along with 10 buildings that recently completed that process and 14 buildings in unincorporated Miami-Dade County that meet those guidelines. Any possible life-threatening issues with those structures will be addressed, Levine Cava said.
The mayor also said she was meeting with numerous building safety experts on a mission “to ensure a tragedy like this will never happen again.”
Miami-Dade police identified three more victims Monday night as Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, Frank Kleiman, 55, and Michael David Altman, 50.
The names of another four people confirmed killed in the disaster were released Sunday night.
The remains of Luis Bermudez, 26, his mother Anna Ortiz, 46, Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Christina Beatriz Evira, 74, were discovered after rescue workers labored to dig a 125-foot trench through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South tower, Miami-Dade police said.
“God decided that he wanted one more angel in heaven. I still do not believe it. I LOVE you and will love you forever,” Luis Bermudez’s father, who is also named Luis Bermudez, wrote on Facebook.
Of the 12 confirmed fatalities so far, one died at the hospital and the others were found dead at the site.
The first four victims to be named were Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, Antonio Lozano, 83, Gladys Lozano, 79, and Manuel LaFont, 54.
Families and individuals who have been displaced were told they can register at SurfsideReunite.com, an alert system created by the state of Florida, Miami-Dade County and the town of Surfside to provide updates and access to resources. People can register for alerts by visiting SurfsideReunite.com or by calling the toll-free number (833) 930-3701.
Meanwhile, most residents of Champlain Towers North have remained, saying they are confident their building is better maintained and doesn’t have the same problems with cracking in support beams and in the pool area, according to the AP.
Burkett said nothing was found in an inspection that indicates the almost 40-year-old 12-story tower is at risk of a similar collapse.
That hasn’t convinced everyone.
Rebecca Weinstock, a snowbird who bought a sixth-floor condo in the north building four years ago with her husband, told an AP reporter she is “petrified of returning” and is staying in New York, for now.
“I am out my investment, I am out my apartment, I am out my future, but we are talking about lives here,” she said, adding she’ll wait for a safety check by two independent engineers from outside South Florida.
North tower residents have been offered federal assistance if they wish to temporarily relocate.