The elite crews searching the pulverized steel and smashed concrete that was the Champlain Towers South would shift their focus to recovery efforts, officials said on Wednesday, acknowledging after nearly two weeks that survivors would not be found.
“Just based on the facts, there’s zero chance of survival,” Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue told families of the missing in a private briefing.
At an evening news conference, Chief Jadallah explained why workers were shifting from trying to find living victims to recovering dead bodies. He described one area where four floors had collapsed onto one another “and the separation between the four floors was a total of three feet.”
That type of “pancake” collapse provides practically no “voids” or “a pocket of space” where a person could survive, Chief Jadallah said.
He also said the amount of time a person can survive without air, water or food affected the decision. Sound sensors, cameras and dogs had not detected any potentially living victims since the “initial hours” of the collapse, he said.
Officials had pledged they would continuing searching as long as any chance of rescue remained at the Surfside, Fla., complex, which collapsed on June 24. When the tally of the missing was first announced, it stood at 159, and the death toll at four. By Wednesday evening, the death toll had risen to 54, with as many as 86 people unaccounted for.
“We have all asked God for a miracle,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said at a news conference. “So the decision to transition from rescue to recovery is an extremely difficult one.”
The mission will officially transition to recovery at midnight, officials said, adding that they expected to be working their way through the rubble for several more weeks.
The shift was announced on the same day that survivors of the collapse visited the site. “They went there for closure,” Ms. Levine Cava said, “and what they realized is how fortunate they were to be alive, to have been rescued from that building.”
Also on Wednesday, Katherine Fernández Rundle, the state attorney for Miami-Dade County, said she had asked a grand jury to examine how any future structural collapses — in Surfside and beyond — might be prevented. In a statement, Ms. Fernández Rundle said that review would take place “pending the conclusion of the long-term investigation that will yield the cause of the collapse.”
At the private meeting with families, Chief Jadallah said search teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Israel were in agreement with the decision.
At one point in the meeting, which The New York Times viewed a recording of, a woman thanked the officials for their work. The room erupted in applause.
Rescue teams had come from all over Florida, as well as Texas, Israel and Mexico, driven on by the anguish of onlooking family members who yelled out the names of their missing loved ones and stories of unlikely survivals from disasters past.
As impatience and frustration grew among family members of the missing, the teams on the pile continued looking for weeks, moving seven million pounds of concrete. The work was grueling and dangerous, with fires that burned in the rubble and the constant possibility of mounds of debris giving way. One rescuer fell 25 feet off the wreckage right in front of people who had been invited to watch the search.
On Sunday, the section of the building that had remained standing was demolished to guard against it toppling on its own and to help speed the search.
Douglas Berdeaux and his wife, Linda Howard, of Daytona Beach, Fla., learned Wednesday morning that Ms. Howard’s sister, Elaine Sabino, 70, was officially named among the dead.
Later they were told that the rescue mission had been called off.
“I think it’s realistic, based on the fact that when they brought down the second portion of the building they were unable to find any voids that they thought people could be staying in,” Mr. Berdeaux said, adding that rescue officials told families they had hoped to find signs of life in a stairwell, or perhaps in a basement area in the gaps between cars.
Instead, he said, “There was nothing. It was all rubble, and crushed. Nothing.”
Mr. Berdeaux said the rescue teams had been “exemplary” in their efforts. “They left nothing to chance,” he said. “Nothing. Every opportunity that they had to do something, they took advantage of it, every single thing.”
Under the gray skies of Surfside, Fla., uneasy storm winds blew through what was left of the Champlain Towers South on Tuesday evening as officials opened the site of a shocking condo collapse for the first time to a limited glimpse by the public.
The ruins of the condominium seemed enormous, a towering heap of floor tiles, broken walls, tossed air-conditioning units and jagged metal rods reaching out like claws — at least two stories high overall, too daunting for anyone to make sense of what it once encompassed.
But the wreckage also looked very small compared with the 13-story building that once stood, in stately brown and beige, its balconies jutting out over Collins Avenue on one side and a sandy Atlantic beach on the other. How could 135 units — 135 homes — and a still-unknown number of lives have been reduced to this, a damp and dusty pile of concrete and metal where a community once thrived?
Workers at the rear of the site toiled on through the approach of Tropical Storm Elsa, which eventually made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning. The Miami Beach area was spared the worst of the storm, but more than 200 workers endured crushing heat and rolling thunderstorms and lighting that forced them to pause their search at times.
Much of the search has been happening behind the wall of rubble, unseen from where reporters stood on the street.
The authorities allowed reporters to get a little closer to the remains of the condo complex that partially collapsed on June 24; the rest was demolished on Sunday because of safety concerns. The new vantage point offered a sobering look of the rescue site from across the street, a spot where not long ago a visitor might have walked past the entrance sign, up the steps and into the building’s lobby. Heavy machinery trawled at the back of the site, digging through the rubble in a search-and-rescue effort that has, day after heartbreaking day, yielded no signs of life.
Standing near the wreckage, it was not difficult to see why.
What had once been part of the roof of the residential tower at 8777 Collins Avenue was almost at street level, a dark splintered slab identifiable by a ventilation or exhaust fixture still in one piece, slanted atop the pile like a top hat. Debris poked out at every possible angle. Twisted metal knotted together like tree branches. Even the planters on the sidewalk were cracked, a few surviving palm trees withering away.
Almost everything was the same shade of brownish gray.
Nearer the front, emergency workers in bright hard hats and neon vests watched from balconies in the two neighboring buildings, one to the north and one to the south. On the street, two rescuers left and returned with a bite to eat. A small and fluffy crisis response dog stood nearby with its handler, apparently waiting to comfort workers as needed.
Motors rumbled from fire trucks, diggers and generators, the sound of a desperate search that has now gone on for nearly two weeks.
On the site of the tennis courts where residents once played, now stood site workers’ tents.
On the corner there was a sign, inviting neighbors to a relic of what seemed like another era, the weekly Surfside farmers’ market.
It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., collapsed without warning last month. But there are already some clues about potential reasons, including design or construction flaws, for the disaster.
Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned. Even if there was a shortfall, some experts said it was unlikely to be the primary cause of the collapse.
Florida has some of the country’s strictest regulations on high-rise buildings, where coveted oceanfront views bring the sun, rain, wind and salty air that can cause structural damage. But the rules are not always enforced, with compliance sometimes taking years longer than required.
The condo board at the Champlain Towers South had for years struggled to convince homeowners to pay special assessments of up to $200,000 in order to begin major renovation projects. Delayed maintenance is an issue for homeowners’ associations around the country, with residents often hoping that future owners will pick up the tab for infrastructure repairs.
In the initial days after the collapse, experts began focusing on the bottom levels of the building where an initial failure could have set off a structural avalanche. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage.
Although officials continue to say that about 100 people remain unaccounted for after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., the ultimate death toll could end up significantly lower.
Investigators had confirmed that about 70 out of the people who remain unaccounted for were in the building when it partially crumbled, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on Tuesday morning.
Detectives have not, however, been able to speak to family members of the others on the list to be certain that their loved ones are, in fact, missing, the mayor said.
Ms. Levine Cava said the police received many tips naming residents or visitors who might have been in the building, but some of those tips came anonymously, or from distant relatives or acquaintances in other countries who either did not leave contact numbers or have not been reachable for follow-up inquiries.
That has left detectives scouring databases and doing other research to try to find out who exactly was in the building and who wasn’t.
Ms. Levine Cava urged families of potential victims to reach out to the Miami-Dade Police Department. “We want to confirm every single account,” she said.
Patricia Mazzei has spent her entire career reporting from South Florida, first as a reporter at The Miami Herald and for nearly four years at the Miami bureau chief at The New York Times. She is no stranger to breaking news coverage, from the death of Fidel Castro in Cuba to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the horrific shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. For the past two weeks, she has anchored The Times’s coverage of the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. We asked her for some insights into the experience.
How did you first hear the news?
Erin McCann, an editor in the London bureau of The Times, called at 6 a.m. Eastern. Her team had covered the story for about four hours by that point, allowing me a few more hours of sleep on what would turn out to be a very long day.
It’s never good when an editor calls at dawn; seeing the country code for England on my phone made my heart drop. This news sounded terrible, but it wasn’t until I saw the images of the half-collapsed building that I realized the enormity of the tragedy.
Tell us about one poignant moment in covering this story that you’ll never forget?
I realized shortly after starting to look for names of people who lived in Champlain Towers South that I had been in that building before, or at least out front and in the back. Years ago, when I was in college, a friend from high school was staying there with her family one summer. We went with other former classmates and hung out by the beach. Her parents were among the victims of the collapse. So many longtime Miamians knew people at the Champlain Towers South, or had connections to them. It’s been heartbreaking.
How many reporters are on the ground in Miami covering this story? From The Times and other outlets?
At one point, I think The Times had nine or 10 staffers here, plus a crew of incredible freelance reporters and photographers. We have had other colleagues rotate in and out since then.
There is a crush of media at a staging area about a block south of the building. Especially the first few days, a number of international outlets showed up, too, in part because the building had residents from many countries.
How long do you think the search effort will go on?
As long as it takes to recover every victim possible, according to the authorities. That seemed like it might take many weeks, but the search sped up dramatically after officials demolished the remaining structure of the building over the weekend. Once the tottering floors were gone, rescue teams could fully search the whole site, something that had previously been too dangerous. As long as those teams are out there, we will be there too.
Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”
Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”
Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”
Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.
Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.
Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.
Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.
Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.
Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.
Also killed in the collapse were Ingrid Ainsworth, 66, and Tzvi Ainsworth, 68; Claudio Bonnefoy, 85, and Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69; Graciela Cattarossi, 48, Gino Cattarossi, 89, and Graciela Cattarossi, 86; Magaly Elena Delgado, 80; Bonnie Epstein, 56, and David Epstein, 58; Francis Fernandez, 67; Nancy Kress Levin, 76, and Jay Kleiman, 52; Elaine Sabino, 71; Simon Segal, 80; Gonzalo Torre, 81; and the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter, whom the authorities declined to name.
Search-and-rescue teams continued searching for people in the rubble of Champlain Towers South on Wednesday morning after avoiding the worst of Tropical Storm Elsa, which made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Forecasts last week suggested that the storm could hit the Atlantic Coast, incentivizing officials to quickly demolish the still-standing portion of the building in Surfside, north of Miami. But as the storm neared Florida, it became clearer that it was instead likely to strike north of Tampa.
The storm has the potential to dump up to nine inches of rain in some parts of the state before traveling north and bringing stormy conditions to Georgia and the Carolinas.
The search was still hampered by the storm on Tuesday, with crews forced to pause their efforts after nearby lightning strikes. Downpours and winds of up to 29 miles per hour could be felt in the Miami area, the National Weather Service said.
But the storm is now well northwest of the region where rescue efforts are nearing the two-week mark. The death toll is officially at 46, with almost 100 people still unaccounted for.
For both survivors and victims’ family members, the best chance of recovering any personal belongings from the catastrophic collapse of Champlain Towers South is now in the hands of an online system.
As search teams comb through the rubble in Surfside, Fla., they are finding remnants of the condo residents’ lives — their everyday items, important documents and treasured keepsakes.
When they come across an item that can be retrieved, including “any type of family heirlooms,” those possessions are logged by homicide detectives, according to the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, Alfredo Ramirez III.
“For our survivors or family members, we have a system in place, through our state partners, where they are able to log in and put down property that they may be looking for,” Mr. Ramirez said at a Sunday morning news conference.
After homicide detectives catalog the items, they are then sent to personnel at the property and evidence bureau, according to Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesman for the Police Department. “We’re finding all kinds of personal items you could imagine coming out of someone’s home,” he said. “We’re finding photos, postcards. First responders are finding drawings children made for their parents.”
But there’s no exact timeline for when people can expect to reclaim those items. “You have to understand that some people have wills or estates — this is not as easy as a lost and found,” Mr. Zabaleta said. “It’s stuff that we have to make sure we’re giving back without breaking any laws.”
For Magaly Ramsey, whose mother, Magaly Delgado, lived in Apartment 911, the prospect of using the online system has been strange.
“It’s hard for family members to do that,” Ms. Ramsey said. “I’m not that sort of person who’s like, ‘Let me make sure I know what jewelry my mom has.’”
She said officials told victims’ families that they were using a GPS system to determine the general vicinity of each apartment, and putting any belongings found in that area into bins for the families.
Ms. Ramsey said she would like to have her mother’s possessions returned to her at some point, but had not yet been willing to log into the online system offered by the authorities.
“I haven’t gone there mentally,” Ms. Ramsey said. “My priority is putting my mom to rest. It’s not grabbing her goods.”