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Surfside condo collapse death toll climbs to 54 as search switches from rescue to recovery: 'No chance of life'

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SURFSIDE, Fla. — The search efforts at a Miami-area condo building that collapsed June 24 shifted from rescue to recovery Wednesday, ending any hope of finding survivors but possibly providing relatives of the victims a sense of closure.

Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told families that, after searching all areas of debris, officials have concluded it will now be next to impossible to find people alive.

“Our sole responsibility at this point is to bring closure,” he said, adding that workers concluded there was "no chance of life.''

Emergency teams will remove rescue dogs and sound devices but continue to search through the rubble for the bodies of victims, Jadallah told the families at a private briefing Wednesday.

At a late-afternoon news conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava updated the confirmed death toll in the tragedy to 54 – eight more than earlier in the day – and said 86 people remain unaccounted for. The transition to recovery efforts will begin at midnight, she added.

Hundreds of first responders and press gathered in the early evening by the collapse site for a moment of silence for the victims and to mark the transition from rescue to recovery. After about 10 minutes of silence, some music started and the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue flew over the site.

Hundreds more gathered at the memorial wall commemorating the victims.

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Remembering the victims: After Florida condo demolition, Surfside memorial wall stands as 'beautiful expression of love'

Levine Cava also highlighted all the efforts rescuers made before finally reaching the difficult conclusion that no more survivors would be found in the rubble of the 12-story building.

“They’ve removed over 7 million pounds of concrete and debris from the mound,'' she said. "They’ve used sonar, cameras, dogs, heavy machinery. They’ve searched for void spaces and they’ve searched for victims. They ran into a building they were told could collapse, and they braved fire, smoke, torrential rain and strong winds in the hopes of finding people alive.’’

Crews searched through the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside for 14 days, hoping to rescue any survivors of the catastrophic collapse. The only recovered survivor was found hours after rescuers arrived at the scene.

Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic Maggie Castro, who has updated families daily, said they had been bracing for Wednesday's news.

“For some, what they’re telling us, it’s almost a sense of relief when they already know (that someone has died) and they can just start to put an end to that chapter and start to move on,” Castro said.

Surfside Strong stickers and candles are among the items left at a memorial wall as recovery efforts continue at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Florida.
Surfside Strong stickers and candles are among the items left at a memorial wall as recovery efforts continue at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Florida.

Earlier Wednesday, 10 bodies were pulled out of the rubble to raise the number of confirmed victims to 46.

Experts say the decision to shift from a rescue to a recovery mission is complicated and involves hundreds of factors. Among them: weighing the safety of the rescuers against the possibility of finding survivors.

Thomas Miller, West Virginia director of the National Volunteer Fire Council, called it "the toughest decision you’ll ever make in the world."

“When crews arrive, there are already victims. Our goal is not to add more victims to the scene by injuring rescuers," he said.

'They had no idea ... what exactly was brewing underneath there': New documents show residents in Florida's collapsed condo feared flaws in original design

Levine Cava fought back tears earlier Wednesday as she announced that 10 more bodies had been found, saying 32 of the victims had been identified and their family members notified.

"Our commitment to this mission is deeply personal," Levine Cava said of the rescue teams that have been working around the clock for two weeks. "We are so grateful to these everyday heroes. They are superheroes."

Four victims were identified Wednesday. In the morning, three victims were identified from recovery Tuesday as Graciela Cattarossi, 86, Gino Cattarossi, 89 and Simon Segal, 80.

Late Wednesday, one victim recovered Tuesday was identified by Miami Dade Police as 71-year-old Elaine Lia Sabino.

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The latest somber discoveries were made hours after journalists were allowed near the massive debris pile for the first time, although access was limited to the part of the building that was imploded three days ago. Access was not allowed on the east side, where about 200 search-and-rescue workers toiled on the rubble pile from the original collapse.

The air was thick with humidity and dust. The mountain of rubble was dominated by massive chunks of concrete, rebar sticking out, bed frames and air conditioners.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday morning that it was unclear whether flaws in the structure were unique to the building, its construction or maintenance. Also unclear are the implications of the collapse for new state regulations.

“I think we need to get those definitive answers,” he said.

DeSantis discussed the effect of the tragedy on Surfside, all of Florida "and throughout the world." More than 500 first responders came from across the state and nation, he said, lauding those working to find survivors and bodies.

"First responders are invested in this mission," he said. "You gotta pull these guys off that pile, they want to be there. ... It is something really deep in them in terms of accomplishing the mission."

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said engineers ran tests at the Champlain Towers North building to see whether it had structural problems. An analysis of the data could take months, he said.

Burkett said $3 million has been collected or pledged to help families. Money is still flowing in, he said, and it will go to families immediately.

DeSantis said Florida residents are grieving deeply.

"I don't think the state is ever quite going to be the same," DeSantis said.

Contributing: James Call, USA TODAY Network-Florida Capital Bureau; Christine Fernando; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Search at Miami condo collapse switches from rescue to recovery

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