SURFSIDE, Fla. — Rescue workers at the deadly Surfside condo building collapse near Miami on Monday spent a fifth day using their hands and tools in a determined, yet increasingly desperate, search to find people possibly clinging to life under the rubble.
At the same time, authorities expanded multiple investigations into what caused the catastrophe with a death toll that rose to 11 by Monday evening. Reports continued to emerge about warnings of structural failures and defects in the 12-story building before it suddenly fell early Thursday morning as victims slept.
There are 150 people still believed missing at the site of one of the worst disasters in Florida history, with no sight or sounds of survivors since the hours immediately following the destruction. Officials say they are not giving up hope, though sonar and other technology has not picked up any cries for help.
“The search and rescue operation continues,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters, while announcing the recovery of a 10th unnamed victim. “These numbers are very fluid and this will continue to change.”
Levine Cava said at a press conference Monday evening that Miami-Dade County officials have begun to audit all 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 is encouraging municipalities in the county to do audits of their own.
Still, relatives of people missing from the destruction of the Champlain Towers South building were increasingly coming to the realization that prayers might not be answered.
“Families are coming to their own conclusions,” the mayor said. “Some are feeling more hopeful, some are less hopeful because we do not have definitive answers.”
Across the street from the wreckage, many onlookers stopped at a small memorial to reflect, pray and leave items like rosaries and bouquets of flowers. One sign hung on the fence reads, “Venezolanos desaparecidos” or “disappeared Venezuelans,” alongside photos of the four people missing from that country.
Authorities said it was unclear when they would stop rescue efforts they say are unprecedented for an emergency in the state aside from a hurricane response.
“We’re just not there yet,” said Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky of efforts that continued through intermittent rain showers.
The bodies search and rescue crews found were scattered throughout the debris, Cominsky said Monday night. They are continuing to look for any spaces where larger pockets in the pile might be.
President Joe Biden 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, his administration said Monday.
“Certainly, we want to play any constructive role we can play with federal resources in getting to the bottom of it and preventing it from happening in the future,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a White House briefing.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., whose district includes Surfside, said the investigations would likely lead to changes in federal law to protect the integrity of condo buildings up and down the coast.
“How are we going to deal with the long-term implications of this?” she said, joining Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials at a news conference near the site of the tragedy.
The governor said the first step is to “identify why this happened,” and he cautioned against expecting quick answers. “This is going to take a long time.”
DeSantis praised an around-the-clock effort that has included a specialized rescue crew from Israel working in hazardous conditions.
“The search continues and will not stop,” he said of work that has continued for over 100 hours.
He also promised relocation help for residents who lost their homes, and counseling services for survivors and families who lost loved ones.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the pain of the building collapse really hit him when he encountered an 11- or 12-year-old girl on Sunday night, sitting alone in a chair near the rubble. He asked her if she needed help, and learned one of her parents is missing.
“She was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site where one of her parents presumably is, and that really brought it home to me,” Burkett said. “She wasn’t crying. She was just lost.”
He said he wants to find the girl again to tell her “we are going to do the best we can to bring out that parent.”
There is some hope to find victims because rescuers have been able to find some voids inside the wreckage, mostly in the basement and parking garage areas, said Andy Alvarez, a deputy incident commander with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“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 in a report posted on Local10.com.
“We have been able to tunnel through the building,” Alvarez added. “This is a frantic search to seek that hope, that miracle, to see who we can bring out of this building alive.”
Efforts are intensifying to find the cause of the disaster and how much was known about structural problems at the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South building, and whether it was preventable.
The New York Times on Monday quoted experts who have examined video footage and focused on a spot in the lowest part of the structure — possibly in or below the underground parking garage — where an initial failure could have set off a “structural avalanche.” This is known as a “progressive collapse,” with design flaws and other failures piling up over time.
“It does appear to start either at or very near the bottom of the structure,” said Donald O. Dusenberry, a consulting engineer who has investigated many structural collapses, told the newspaper. “It’s not like there’s a failure high and it pancaked down.”
DeSantis said he met Monday with a team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is exploring the history of the building’s construction.
The Miami Herald reported Monday that a month after an engineer’s report flagged “major structural damage” at Champlain Towers South, the chief building official for the town of Surfside told residents the condominium was “in very good shape,” according to minutes from a November 2018 board meeting obtained by the newspaper.
Ross Prieto, who left the post last year, had reviewed the engineer’s report, the minutes say. Records show condo board member Mara Chouela forwarded Prieto two reports: the “structural field survey report” by engineer Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants detailing the building’s structural deficiencies, and a mechanical and electrical engineering report by Thomas E. Henz. P.E. This was shown in an email posted on the town’s website.
But Saturday, Prieto told the Herald he didn’t remember getting the report, which detailed “abundant cracking” in concrete columns, beams and walls.
Burkett, the mayor, told reporters his town is going to post online all of its files about the building, because of the tremendous public interest.
“We will be 100% transparent,” he said.
The Herald also reported an interview with a commercial pool contractor who visited the building last Tuesday, days before the collapse. The man, who asked not to be named, was looking to bid on pool work to be included in the multimillion-dollar restoration project that just was getting underway.
The contractor 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,” he told the Herald.
Meanwhile, revelations were emerging about the building’s developer, Nathan Reiber, a Canadian citizen who built the condo in 1981.
Reiber, who died in 2014, pleaded guilty in Canada in the 1970s to tax evasion for skimming thousands of dollars from coin-operated laundries and issuing $120,000 in checks for phony construction work to cover up the tax cheating, The Washington Post reported.
The late developer’s activities are significant because questions have arisen about the quality of the construction.
A 2018 engineering consultant’s report warned of “major structural damage” at the base of the building and also identified a “major error” in the placement of waterproofing on a flat rather than sloped surface, allowing the pooling of water.
The report to the condo association by Morabito Consultants said “failed waterproofing” below the pool deck and entrance drive at Champlain Towers South had led to significant deterioration of the concrete.
Replacing the waterproofing would be “extremely expensive,” the report stated, because it would require removal of the concrete slab above it.
“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report, which was signed by Frank Morabito, the company’s president.
Morabito Consultants issued a statement Saturday offering prayers and saying the firm was “deeply troubled by this building collapse.”
After completing the 2018 report, the firm was hired in June 2020 to create plans for the repairs, which would be done by another company.
“At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were underway, but concrete restoration had not yet begun,” the statement said.
The report was posted on the Town of Surfside’s website along with inspection reports and other documents about the collapsed building.
To what extent the damage identified in the report was addressed by the condo association, or whether it had anything to do with the building’s collapse, was unclear.
Experts say the disaster will require an extensive investigation and may involve multiple causes.
The names of another four people confirmed killed in the disaster were released Sunday night after their bodies were found in the ongoing search and recovery effort.
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 10 confirmed fatalities so far, one died at the hospital and the others were found dead at the site.
Eight of the victims had been publicly identified as of Sunday night. The first four victims to be named were Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, Antonio Lozano, 83, Gladys Lozano, 79, and Manuel LaFont, 54.
Rescue workers on Monday were still searching for signs of life.
“Any void, any crevice that the team sees, that’s where they search through. Any that shows positive potential — any little bit of potential — the crews aggressively head in that area,” Cominsky, the fire chief, said.
But hopes were fading.
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.