SURFSIDE, FLORIDA. (Reuters) – Families and friends of the 159 people missing after the collapse of a condo building in a Miami suburb were clinging to hope on Friday as rescue workers sifted through a mountain of debris for signs of life, having found four dead so far.
Three more bodies were pulled from the rubble overnight after one person was reported dead on Thursday, and there were 159 people presumed missing on Friday afternoon.
“We have one goal in mind now and that is to bring people out alive and that’s all we’re doing,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters on Friday. “We’re not stopping.”
Rescue workers were treading carefully through the structurally unstable debris pile looking for survivors, removing rubble by hand while battling intermittent rainstorms and an ongoing fire that broke out at the site.
“I’m praying for a miracle,” Rachel Spiegel, whose mother Judy Spiegel is missing, told CNN on Friday.
The last time Spiegel communicated with her mom was Wednesday night, when her mother excitedly texted her that she had bought a dress online for Spiegel’s daughter, her granddaughter.
Hours later, early Thursday morning, a large section of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, a barrier island town across Biscayne Bay from the city of Miami, crumbled to the ground, authorities said.
“The dress is in the mail and I just want my mom to give it to her,” Rachel Spiegel told CNN, wiping away tears.
Video captured by a security camera nearby showed an entire side of the building suddenly folding in two sections, one after the other, at about 1:30 a.m. (0530 GMT) on Thursday, throwing up clouds of dust.
Dozens of people were gathered at a reunification site at the Surfside Community Center on Friday, where the scene was hectic with volunteers running around and people hugging to console each other.
Outside the center, Toby Fried held back tears when she said she last spoke to her brother Chaim “Harry” Rosenberg around midnight Wednesday. Rosenberg had lived in Champlain Towers for about a year and a half. He and his daughter Malki Weiss and her husband Beni Weiss, who were visiting him from Brooklyn in New York City, are all missing.
“They came to stay with him for a week on vacation,” Fried said.
Joining the families searching for missing loved ones was Paraguay’s first lady Silvana López Moreira, who traveled to Florida because her sister, brother-in-law and their children were unaccounted for. The first lady’s family owned a condo in the building, local media reported.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said on Friday that rescuers had heard sounds in the rubble overnight, but said it could be either falling debris or people tapping.
“We are listening for sounds, human sounds,” Jadallah said.
‘I GRABBED THE KIDS AND OUR PHONES’
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that 110 individuals whose whereabouts were initially unknown were since located and “declared safe.”
“We still have hope that we will find people alive,” the mayor said.
A fire official said earlier that 35 people were evacuated from the section of the high-rise left standing, and response teams using trained dogs and drones in the search pulled two individuals from the rubble. One of them was dead.
Survivor Janette Aguero, her husband and her two teenage children had been staying in her mother-in-law’s apartment for vacation this week. Around 1:20 a.m. on Thursday, she was startled by what felt like an earthquake, she said. Her family ran down the stairwell to escape.
“A million things raced through my mind,” Aguero said. “I grabbed the kids and our phones. That was the only thing we could take because everyone was telling us we had to get out.”
“The room where my children slept is only 15 feet away from the section that collapsed,” she said.
U.S. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.
“We sent the best people from FEMA down there,” Biden said on Friday, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency during remarks at a White House event to commemorate Pride Month He said the federal government would help “provide for everything” from housing to potentially a mortuary in the worst scenario.
“Our hearts go out to them,” Biden said.
What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to cave in was not immediately known, although local officials said the 12-story tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs.
“We need a definitive explanation,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters on Friday. “We have families that lost loved ones. … People want to know how could a building could collapse like this.”
Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking about 1mm to 3mm per year while surrounding buildings remained stable, said Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.
“Either the building is settling into the soil or maybe there is some compromise with the structure, a compromise within the building. We cannot really say,” he said in a telephone interview. “I was very surprised, because I didn’t expect that.”
He said there is not sufficient data to show whether the movement continued since then.
Late Thursday night, a resident of the collapsed building filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit against the condominium, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.
Manuel Drezner said in the proposed class action that the collapse could have been avoided had the condominium made needed repairs and ensured it was safe.
He said the condominium should pay unit owners millions of dollars for their “unfathomable loss.”
Officials said the complex, built in 1981, was going through a recertification process requiring repairs, with another building under construction on an adjacent site.
The Champlain Towers South had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It had been subject to various inspections recently due to the recertification process and the adjacent building construction, Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told Miami television station WPLG Local 10.
(Reporting by Francisco Alvarado in Surfside, Florida; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Gabriella Borter in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Mike Collett-White and Jonathan Oatis)