Tue, December 07, 2021

international

99 people unaccounted for in Miami-Dade condo collapse


SURFSIDE, Fla. - A large oceanfront condo building near Miami Beach partially collapsed early Thursday morning, killing at least one person, injuring another 10 or more and prompting a massive search-and-rescue response as 99 people remain unaccounted for.

Dozens of units from police and fire agencies rushed to Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., at 1:30 a.m. after the northeast corridor of the building collapsed, Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said. Rescuers evacuated 35 people from the 12-story building, including two recovered from the rubble.

"We went running out, and we saw all the debris, and the building was just gone," said Alexis Watson, 21, who is vacationing from Texas at a nearby hotel. "We heard a couple of people yelling, 'Help, help, please!' "

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 102 residents had been located, but 99 people were still unaccounted for as of early Thursday evening. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman said the number of people unaccounted for does not necessarily mean all are missing or were in the building at the time of collapse.

"They are unaccounted for because they have not been heard from or have not called family or friends to say they are okay," Heyman said.

The partial collapse came one day after the building had passed inspection, Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul told The Washington Post. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R said engineers were examining what caused the collapse but an exact cause could take some time to determine.

"It's a tragic day," DeSantis said. "We still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors."

Footage of the collapse captured by nearby security cameras shows a wing of the building suddenly collapsing and a cloud of dust filling the air. One witness described seeing people trapped inside using their phone flashlights to signal for help. In the immediate aftermath, rescuers pulled a boy from the rubble, while firefighters used ladders to rescue other tenants from balconies in the still-standing portion of the tower.

Nicholas Balboa, who lives next door to the condo, said he could see the boy's hand waving through the rubble as he helped rescue him.

"He was yelling, 'Please help me!'" Balboa said to WFOR. "It was sheer panic."

Meanwhile, dozens of family members and friends gathered at a community center established to gather information and hopefully reunite loved ones.

Luz Marina Pena carried a photograph of her aunt, 77-year-old Marina Azen, who lived on the fourth floor. She said her relative had lived in the building for 20 years and never complained about poor maintenance.

"I'm praying for a miracle," Pena said.

Authorities were unable to say whether anyone else had died and emphasized that search-and-rescue operations were ongoing. Surfside City Manager Andrew Hyatt told reporters the efforts could last at least a week. Another official told the Miami Herald that first responders believed they'd recovered all survivors from inside.

"Everyone who is alive is out of the building," said Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management.

The White House is monitoring the situation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and coordinating any possible assistance with local officials, a Biden administration official said.

President Joe Biden said his administration is ready to offer federal resources "immediately" as soon as DeSantis declared the collapse an emergency.

"We will be there," the president said.

Fifty rooms at a hotel located next door to the residential building were evacuated, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters Thursday.

The mayor told NBC's "Today" show that it "looks like a bomb went off," calling the partial collapse "a catastrophic failure of that building."

"It's hard to imagine how this could happen," Burkett said. "Buildings just don't fall down."

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said it had deployed its Technical Rescue Team, which is "specially trained in the treatment and removal of victims trapped in complex or confined spaces," according to the agency. Video shows first responders helping people in the portion of the building that's still standing. Part of the inside of the destroyed units could be seen from outside; on one floor, a bunk bed stood standing along the edge.

The building's residents seemed to be a cross-section of residents emblematic of Miami's diversity: Venezuelans, Paraguayans and people belonging to the Orthodox Jewish community. Among those unaccounted for are multiple family members of Silvana López Moreira, the first lady of Paraguay.

Bradley Lozano's family has owned a unit on the side of the building that collapsed since the mid-2000s. His stepfather lived there, and the family had not heard from him as of Thursday morning, Lozano said. They spent the morning checking the reunification center and local hospitals but couldn't find him.

"We're still waiting to hear just like everybody else," Lozano, 37, told The Post.

Lozano, who owns a mortgage servicing company, said he was asleep at home in Pinecrest, Fla., when his brother woke him before 4 a.m. and told him the tower had come crashing down. He turned on the news and saw the heaps of pulverized concrete and metal.

"It's surreal," he said. "You just don't see that in our country, really."

Constructed on reclaimed wetlands, Champlain Towers South was built as part of a series of 12-story condos along the beach in the early 1980s, the Herald reported at the time. Several units in the building are listed for sale on Zillow with an asking price of $600,000 or more.

A 2020 study conducted by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the department of earth and environment at Florida International University, found that the building had been sinking since the 1990s, reported USA Today.

The city of Surfside is an enclave for the Orthodox Jewish community, boasting some of South Florida's largest synagogues. Just a week before, DeSantis visited the Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside to sign laws and emphasize his pro-Israel platform. The area that some call "Little Buenos Aires" also hosts an Argentine-American community formed after an economic collapse in the South American country in the 1990s.

Along Collins Avenue, an upscale thoroughfare extending north of Miami Beach, towers lining Miami's coast are inhabited by a mix of seasonal and year-round residents. Some of the condo's units may have been empty at the time of the collapse.

Lozano questioned whether construction at the building just south of the tower may have rattled the foundation and weakened the structure. During visits to the condo over the past two years, he said, he frequently saw heavy machinery pounding away at the ground. Neighbors were also wary of the construction work, he said.

He described Champlain Towers South as a "family building," filled with a mix of snowbirds and year-round residents. Airbnb rentals were barred, so the community was tightknit.

"Everybody who lived there knew each other," Lozano said.

99 people unaccounted for in Miami-Dade condo collapse

Ofi Osin-Cohen, a resident of the building, recounted the horror of being rescued from her fourth-story balcony. Osin-Cohen told "Today" that she awoke when she felt the building begin to shake. Trying to escape the building, all she could see was smoke and debris. She said she also heard screams throughout the building.

"It is just overwhelming to see when we opened the door and saw that the building had collapsed," she said.

Kevin DiSilva was frantically looking for information on a friend who lived in the collapsed building. The only piece of information he got from police was the name of the hospital where victims were taken.

"We've called every number they tell us to call," DiSilva said. "We don't know what else to do."

Local leaders urged the public to support the victims and their loved ones.

"This is a very sad moment in our community," Jose "Pepe" Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, said in a news conference. "It is important that all prayers go out to all family members and those suffering right now."

Published : June 25, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Lori Rozsa, Tim Elfrink, Timothy Bella, Derek Hawkins