Five dead, 156 still missing in Florida building collapse as searchers race against time

People mourn at the memorial site created by neighbors in front of the partially collapsed building where the rescue personnel continue their search for victims, in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida.
PHOTO: REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Searchers worked on Sunday to find more than 150 missing residents amid the rubble of a Florida apartment building that collapsed three days ago, as questions arose about the tower’s structural integrity.

The death toll of five was certain to rise as emergency workers in Surfside, a shore town near Miami, were joined by teams from Israel and experts from Mexico.

“Everybody that is needed is on the site and doing the work and we’re continuing our efforts to find people alive,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told CBS on Sunday.

Officials said they harbored hope that some of the 156 people unaccounted for might be alive. Aided by dogs, infrared scanning and heavy equipment, they hope people can survive in air pockets that may have formed in the debris.

A smoldering fire beneath the rubble that produced thick smoke and hindered the work of rescuers has abated, officials said.

“The biggest thing now is hope,” Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said. “That’s what’s driving us. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”

Some families of those missing have provided DNA samples to officials while others recounted narrow escapes.

Rescue personnel continues search and rescue operations for survivors of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida.PHOTO: REUTERS/Marco Bello

Champlain Towers South resident Erick de Moura was supposed to be home when the building collapsed, but his girlfriend persuaded him to spend the night at her place less than 2 miles away in Miami Beach, likely saving his life.

“Only by God. To me this is a miracle,” the 40-year-old Brazil native told Reuters.

Photographs of the missing were posted on a nearby fence, along with flowers and messages. On Saturday, family members prayed and kept a silent vigil at a barrier erected on the beach by authorities several hundred yards north of the building site. They declined to comment.

Surfside officials have released documents including an engineer’s report from 2018 that found major structural damage beneath the pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage of the 12-story condominium.

The report was produced for the Champlain Towers South condominium board in preparation for a major repair project set for this year.

It was not immediately clear whether the damage described in the report was connected to the collapse about 1:30 a.m. on Thursday.

Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association, said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower with their families.

Luisa Zapata places flowers on the memorial site created by neighbors in front of the partially collapsed building where the rescue personnel continue their search for victims, in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida.PHOTO: REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

The report estimated it would cost $9.1 million to make the recommended repairs. Berger said the board had taken out a $12 million line of credit to pay for the repairs and asked owners to pay $80,000 each. Work had started on replacing the roof ahead of hurricane season and the board was gathering bids for the concrete work, but the pandemic slowed the project, she said.

The condominium was also preparing for recertification this year, a safety requirement for buildings older than 40 years in Florida.

Officials said on Saturday that Miami-Dade County would audit all buildings more than 40 years old within the next 30 days to ensure they have been recertified.

Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking 1 to 3 millimeters per year, while surrounding buildings were stable, according to Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.

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