SURFSIDE, Fla. — Florida leaders vowed Wednesday that they will not abandon the search for survivors in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building even as rescue efforts entered a second week and the state began scrambling to prepare for the arrival of hurricane season.
Authorities announced that they recovered the remains of six additional victims, bringing the confirmed death toll to 18. Two of the victims found Wednesday were children, ages 4 and 10, officials said. Another 145 people remain missing.
With no survivors found amid the rubble since the immediate hours after the building collapsed last Thursday, Florida leaders and emergency personnel are facing mounting questions about whether they continue to classify their efforts as a rescue mission.
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and Miami-area leaders stressed Wednesday that they still have hope that survivors could be found in the rubble, a hope that they say is bolstered by the discovery of air pockets and tunnels in the debris.
“Rest assured those folks are going to be working on that pile, and it’s not going to stop,” DeSantis said. “And they’re going to get answers one way or another.”
The vow by officials to redouble rescue efforts came ahead of a scheduled visit to Surfside on Thursday by President Biden. Biden is likely to meet with families and rescue personnel, and possibly visit the site of the collapse. He also will deliver remarks.
It’s unclear if he will meet with DeSantis, who is a frequent critic of the president and a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, when Biden has indicated he plans to seek a second term.
DeSantis did not mention Biden’s scheduled visit during a Wednesday news conference. But Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez III, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said local authorities were “very grateful the president is coming.”
“We have been resilient. We’ve had several challenges from weather, sorrow, pain, and I think the president coming will bring some unity here for our community,” Ramirez said.
Biden could also be briefed on the progress of multiple investigations that have been launched into what caused much of the 12-story building to collapse last week.
The federal National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will launch a full investigation into the Surfside collapse, its director said Wednesday, joining the other inquiries that will attempt to understand what happened last week.
James Olthoff, the director, said he was establishing a team under a federal law signed after the 9/11 attacks that allows the institute to deploy teams of experts to investigate failures of buildings.
“This will be a fact-finding, not faultfinding, technical investigation,” Olthoff said at a briefing. “It will take time, possibly a couple of years. But we will not stop until we’ve determined the likely cause of this tragedy.”
The team will be the fifth set up under the post-9/11 law. Previous teams established by the NIST under the law have investigated the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11; a Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003; the tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011; and an ongoing study of Hurricane Maria striking Puerto Rico in 2017. The completed investigations have lasted for more than two years.
Judith Mitrani-Reiser, a NIST official who has been co-leading the team of scientists conducting a preliminary investigation in Surfside, said at the briefing that this group had recommended the full inquiry.
She said officials were collecting evidence and determining the investigation’s scope and had not yet established who would be on the team, though it would combine NIST staff members and outside experts.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett held an hourlong meeting Wednesday with engineer Allyn Kilsheimer, who has been hired to head one of the investigations. But Burkett said efforts to accelerate the probe have been hampered because there were multiple blueprints of Champlain Towers, and it wasn’t immediately clear which set was used in the construction.
“I’ve instructed our staff to pull every document and give it to him,” Burkett said of Kilsheimer.
As he sat in Surfside’s Town Hall and sorted through the various blueprints, Kilsheimer said he was “essentially playing a game of puzzle.”
“I’m putting together drawings to try to get what I think might be the work that was done there in the first place,” said Kilsheimer said.
“I’m organizing essentially all the different drawings for the same floor, with different dates, so I can see what the differences are,” he added. “I did that for North, and I did that for East and now finishing off South,” he said referring to the different towers. “I’ll sort them by date and look for differences between the two, if there are any.”
Although experts say the odds of finding any additional survivors continues to diminish with each passing hour, officials’ hopes were bolstered Wednesday when a commander of an elite Israeli search team told CNN that they had discovered several tunnels amid the debris that could conceivably support life.
“There are new spaces that we find,” said Col. Golan Vach, commander of the Israeli National Rescue Unit, which arrived in Surfside over the weekend. “It was between the balconies. Between the balconies there remained a big space of air, and we crawled in those tunnels.”
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky also said the discovery of the open spaces was reason to press ahead with rescue efforts.
“It is absolutely still a search-and-rescue mission,” Cominsky said. “If we see a void space, we find an area, we expand from there, and we try to tunnel certain areas from there.”
In a sign of officials’ determination to stay the course, DeSantis announced Wednesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had authorized the deployment of additional search-and-rescue teams to Surfside. One of those teams now en route is Virginia Beach-based Virginia Task Force 2. Eighty members of the team departed for Florida on Wednesday, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
There are nearly 370 rescue personnel, including all eight of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force teams, on the scene. DeSantis said the additional teams from out of state will free up some of the Florida-based units in case a tropical storm or hurricane threatens the state.
The National Hurricane Center is monitoring a tropical disturbance in the Atlantic Ocean that could develop into Tropical Storm Elsa. The storm could move toward Cuba, South Florida or into the Gulf of Mexico by early next week, according to forecasts.
Although there is no imminent threat to the state, DeSantis and Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said the state needs to begin making contingency plans for bad weather. Officials may have to remove tents and some heavy equipment from the collapse site if a tropical storm or hurricane threatens South Florida, he added.
“If a storm does develop, I want to assure you we have contingency plans, which include facility relocation, communications and backup plans of how we will continue to respond here while responding to a hurricane,” Guthrie said.
Even without a tropical storm, rescue crews in Surfside have been battling frequent gusty winds and thunderstorms that can either kick up dust or soak emergency personnel as they sift through the rubble.
But Burkett, the mayor, said at the news conference that he has been assuring relatives of those missing that strong winds and inclement weather have not deterred search dogs.
Handlers told him that search dogs, through practice and training, are able to pick up scents from great distances, even in adverse conditions. The dogs are also helpful in disasters because they can crawl into confined spaces.
“We have two sets of dogs there,” Burkett said. “We have dogs that are looking for people who are alive, and we have dogs that are looking for people who have passed on, and they rotate those dogs in and out.”
In an interview later with The Washington Post after he visited the collapse site, Burkett said he noted the pile of rubble was getting smaller. Rescue teams having been using cranes and buckets to slowly remove debris, and Burkett said the goal of the effort remains trying to find survivors.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be a recovery operation,” he said. “Philosophically, at least for me, it’s ‘Leave no man behind.’ “
Asked if he worried about giving families false hope, Burkett said, “I worry about a lot of things, but that’s not one of them right now.”
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Beachum and Berman reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Meryl Kornfield, Lori Rozsa and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.