Rescue workers descend on collapsed Florida condo tower in desperate search for signs of life


SURFSIDE, Fla. - Hundreds of search-and-rescue workers wielding diamond-tipped drills and sonar scanners probed a smoldering mountain of wreckage Friday during the second full day of the painstaking effort to find signs of life inside a collapsed 12-story condominium tower near Miami Beach.

Working in shifts amid intermittent sun and torrential rain, crews used heavy machinery to delicately lift chunks from the tangled thicket of concrete and rebar that remained of the Champlain Towers South to give rescuers new angles into the rubble. Fires broke out and smoke poured from the building while emergency workers built makeshift tunnels into the building's interior.

An aerial view of the collapsed Champlain Towers South on Friday in Surfside, Fla. Four people were confirmed dead as of Friday evening, and search-and-rescue teams are still working to find survivors trapped under rubble. "There's still anticipation of live victims," said Dave Downey, a Miami-Dade former fire chief. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti

Rescue crews along with engineers, medical teams and other first responders were attacking the waterfront building from above and below to try to save any of the 159 people still missing and unaccounted for, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

"They are taking enormous risks," Levine Cava said in Spanish at a Friday afternoon news conference in the beach community of Surfside, located on a barrier island just north of Miami Beach. "They are ready to find more people alive."

With distraught relatives anxiously waiting for updates, Surfside officials vowed to review building codes, and Miami ordered citywide inspections of all buildings that were at least six stories high and 40 years old, the age of the collapsed condo tower.

At an emergency meeting of the Surfside town commission Friday, officials said they planned to bring in an independent engineering firm to assess the structural integrity of neighboring buildings. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said while there was no immediate evidence that other buildings were in danger, the town would consider evacuating residents of the surrounding Champlain Towers complex buildings, while residents in other nearby structures have already chosen to leave.

"Given we have no idea what caused this collapse, and we all know the chances of that happening again are like lightning striking, but I don't know that there's anybody in this room that would be willing to roll the dice," Burkett said.

By Friday evening, four people had been confirmed killed after the building collapsed early Thursday morning, but only one of them had been identified: Stacie Fang, whose 15-year-old son was rescued from the rubble, was taken to a hospital but did not survive, county officials said.

For hundreds more relatives, many who gathered at a reunification center, there was silence on dead cellphones and the agonizing wait for information about the whereabouts of those who lived in the 55 waterfront apartments that crumbled to the ground.

"Right now, it's just nothing," said a college student who had flown in hours earlier from Israel and stood behind yellow police tape waiting for answers about his missing dad. He asked not to be named. "I have no idea what's going on. I'm waiting for a call that may or may not come."

From her fourth-floor balcony, Cassandra Stratton, 40, was on the phone with her husband as she watched the pool cave into a crater in the ground and felt a deep tremor in her apartment, her older sister Ashley Dean said. In a moment, the line cut off.

"She screamed bloody murder and that was it," Dean said Stratton's husband told her.

From the beach, Dean pointed toward where her sister's apartment once was, holding back tears as she recalled her charismatic sibling.

"I want to have hope," she said, "but I'm a realist. I don't want to hold on to false dreams."

Among the missing was a group of six people from Puerto Rico who had traveled to Miami to attend the funeral of a friend's father. Jacqueline Glago said her family friends were staying at the Champlain Towers.

"We haven't heard anything about them," she said. "We are all desperate."

By Friday, the most accessible victims had already been rescued and sent to hospitals. Rescue crews were focused on probing deeper into the wreckage looking for "void spaces" formed by large objects such as refrigerators, air conditioning units, sofas or other rubble that could create pockets where someone could hide without being crushed, said Dave Downey, former fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

"There's still anticipation of live victims," he said. "They're doing everything necessary to locate and extract them."

Downey said crews were removing large blocks of concrete but that every piece of debris moved could cause another shift, and there was a persistent risk of a secondary collapse.

The current chief, Alan Cominsky, said late Friday the search for survivors would continue through the night and that several pieces of heavy equipment, including cranes, were en route.

"This is a very strategic, methodical process," he said. "We can't just move it all at one time. It has to be very slow processes where we're digging through, searching, shoring up certain areas."

The team leading the operation is the Miami-Dade-based Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 1, an 80-person unit widely regarded as one of the world's leading search and rescue outfits. The group has experience in a broad range of domestic and international disasters, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They use dogs trained to pick up the scent of live humans from floors away and regularly rely on listening devices and fiber optic cameras to peer through the rubble.

The crews worked amid an acrid burning smell and clouds of smoke. Sweat poured down their faces as they lined up for water. A priest walked over to one exhausted-looking firefighter and gave him a hug.

"We're dealing with a multifaceted, multidimensional type of threat," said Obed Frometa, a lieutenant on the Miami-Dade search-and-rescue team who helped plan the effort. "We're dealing not only with the exposed elements of the structure itself, but voids and the continuous threats of collapse."

Frometa said the search for survivors had been delicate. Each time a new fire ignites, crews have to make sure not to pour too much water on the concrete, fearing the weight would cause that section to collapse on someone who may sill be alive. They've also worked below the pile, boring into the top of a collapsed parking garage with diamond-tipped drills to access crushed condo units.

Outside of the wreckage, the small beach city of Surfside was taken over by hordes of police. Helicopters circled overhead, and yellow police tape cordoned off several surrounding blocks and a large swath of the beach. By midafternoon, authorities were setting up large, tan-colored support tents on a tennis court in front of the collapsed building. On the other side of the court's chain-link fence, an impromptu memorial went up with missing-person fliers and flower bouquets.

Bewildered residents gathered beyond the police cordon, some asking officers how to reach their homes. Others came to pray.

Eric Dar said a prayer on the beach outside the building, wrapping a leather strap around his arm in the Jewish ritual of wearing tefillin and reading from a list of about 30 names of the missing.

"It seems like only prayers can maybe help," he said, adding, "I just thought that maybe some miracle would happen."

Authorities were no closer to offering an explanation for why the building fell down.

"We need a definitive explanation for how this could have happened," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said at a Friday news conference in Surfside. "It's tough. It's been gut-wrenching for an awful lot of people. But I tell you nobody is quitting here, and we are going to stand by those families and we're going to stand by everyone that's been displaced."

DeSantis spoke with President Joe Biden on Friday and thanked the administration for its "full support" after Biden approved an emergency declaration for Miami-Dade County.

A team of six National Institute of Standards and Technology scientists and engineers will be sent to the collapsed portions of the condo as part of a process to determine how the building fell.

Before the condo fell, repairs were being done on the roof, but Jim McGuinness, a town building official, said he had been on the roof 14 hours before and did not see an inordinate amount of building materials there. He said workers had been replacing the anchors that window cleaners use to rappel down the building's exterior.

But one resident of a top-floor penthouse warned relatives - before she went missing - that the construction on the roof had caused her unit to vibrate.

"She'd been complaining for the past couple of weeks about the construction on the roof," Douglas Berdeaux said about his wife's sister, Elaine Sabino. "She said she was worried that the ceiling was going to collapse on top of her bed."

Buildings in the county are required to be recertified every 40 years, and the Champlain Towers South building was going through that certification process. Structural engineers also raised the possibility that ocean tides and sea spray could have gotten inside the concrete foundation and corroded the reinforcing steel. One Florida scientist wrote a paper last year that found the tower had been sinking in the 1990s.

Many of those who lived in sections of the building that remained standing and who managed to escape did so in harrowing ways early Thursday. They awoke to sounds they believed were thunder or lightning; a nearby bomb or a roof caving in. Chandeliers swung and floors buckled.

Esther Gorfinkel, 88, believed it was a seaside squall before her room began to shake. Within moments, the intercom blared, first in English, then in Spanish, telling residents to evacuate.

But many including Gorfinkel found the exit doors warped and mangled. Some could look down what had been their hallways into the gaping night air and a thick plume of dust and smoke. Some residents screamed from balconies and escaped down fire rescue ladders.

"A lot of friends of mine are gone," Gorfinkel said. "That section that fell down, I know everybody and some of them were good friends of mine."