For weeks, crews have been searching through the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside. The collapse has killed nearly 100 people, in what is feared to be the worst building failure in U.S. history.
“Its obvious that this has become much more than a collapsed building site. It is a holy site,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said on July 12.
Crews searched the debris in 12-hour shifts, layer by layer, digging with shovels and by hand, using heavy equipment, infrared technology, unmanned robots, K-9s. Rescuers faced other challenges including stormy weather, a deep-seated fire under the rubble, COVID-19 exposure, and the overhanging threat that the rest of the standing building would fall on them.
The rescue turned into a recovery mission just days after the standing portion of the 12-story building was demolished on the Fourth of July. Grieving families are still left waiting for answers on how the tragedy happened.
New details that emerged in the days following the collapse showed that there were issues at Champlain South long before it began preparing for its 40-year recertification. Experts who reviewed publicly available evidence told the Miami Herald it seemed likely the collapse began at the pool deck before the rest of the building pancaked. So far, more than a dozen lawsuits related to the collapse have been filed in court.
Here’s a timeline of developments:
Champlain Towers South collapses, search efforts begin
▪ June 24 — The ocean-facing portion of the building, which contained 55 units, pancakes at 1:23 a.m. into a mountain of rubble. The disaster happens while most are sleeping. Residents of the portion of the building still standing are evacuated.
Crews begin their search-and-rescue mission, looking for people who might be buried inside the unstable two-story-high pile of debris.
“I have to say the sensation here is like in a war zone,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the spiritual leader at the Shul of Bal Harbour, the sprawling Orthodox synagogue just four blocks from the condo collapse. “It feels exactly like 9/11.”
Hundreds of families gather at the Surfside Community Center, which is turned into a family reunification center, searching for information about their loved ones. A reunification hotline is also set up.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declares a state of emergency, enabling federal rescue, housing and financial assistance.
Officials say 35 survivors are pulled out. Ten are treated for injuries on the site and two are taken to the hospital. Officials report 99 people missing and 102 people accounted for. At least one person is confirmed dead. The first lawsuit relating to the collapse is filed electronically at 11:29 p.m.
159 people now missing and first victim of Surfside building collapse identified
▪ June 25 — As the second day of rescue efforts continue, the list of who is missing grows to 159. There are 120 people accounted for. The death toll rises to four.
Authorities also identify the first victim: Stacie Fang, 54. She lived in the building with her 15-year-old son, Jonah Handler, a 10th-grade junior varsity baseball player at Monsignor Edward Pace High School. They are among the few people pulled alive from the rubble during the first hours after the collapse. Fang dies at the hospital. Her son survives.
In Washington, President Joe Biden authorizes FEMA to provide federal support.
Memorial rises near Surfside collapse and Miami-Dade calls for building audits
▪ June 26 — Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava orders an immediate audit of all buildings in the county that are more than 40 years old and taller than five stories, as well as those built by the same developer that constructed the Champlain Towers South. The 136-unit building was finished in 1981 and was preparing for its 40-year recertification.
Voluntary evacuations also begin at Champlain Towers South nearby sister buildings, Champlain Towers North and East. The North tower, which is slightly smaller, is the same age and of similar design to the crumbled building, causing concern among officials over its safety.
A memorial wall is created on a fence along a tennis court on Harding Avenue, a couple of blocks south of the fallen tower. It will continue to grow in the coming days.
A 2018 report released by the town of Surfside shows that an engineer flagged a “major error” dating back to the origin of Champlain South, where lack of proper drainage on the pool deck had caused “major structural damage.” It’s the first glimpse into what might have gone wrong.
Members of the Homefront Command of the Israel Defense Forces are on their way to assist search and rescue efforts. Miami-Dade police officers also switch to 12-hour shifts.
The death toll climbs to five, with 156 people still missing.
Grieving families visit the ruins of the collapsed condo for the first time
June 27 — After days of pleading, families are allowed to visit the condo ruins to grieve and pray for loved ones in the rubble.
Many cry and wear T-shirts adorned with photos of their missing loved ones. When they arrive at the site, several people yell out names at the mountain of debris in hopes someone might hear.
Crews dig a trench, described to be 125 feet long, 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep, to help them search for survivors in other parts of the rubble while also helping them combat a “deep” fire that Levine Cava describes as “hampering” search efforts.
Another four bodies are recovered, bringing the total to nine dead and 152 still missing.
Number of rescuers at Surfside collapse equal Hurricane Michael deployment
June 28 — All eight of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue task force teams, about 370 people, are now assisting in the search and rescue efforts. It’s the largest deployment of task force resources in the history of the state not involving a hurricane. The number of people on the ground is equal to what was deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Panhandle in 2018, officials say.
“What is different is that I can’t recall any time that we’ve deployed all eight teams in the history of Florida for one single catastrophic collapse,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie tells the Miami Herald in a phone interview.
The teams include Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue — known around the world for their lifesaving efforts, including during 9/11. The other task forces are from across the state, including Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Tallahassee and Ocala. There are also task force teams from Israel and Mexico.
The death toll rises to 11. There are still 150 people missing and 136 people accounted for.
Federal agency that investigated 9/11 announces probe into Surfside collapse
June 30 — The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a little-known sub-agency of the Department of Commerce, which investigated the fall of the Twin Towers after 9/11, announces it will launch a full investigation into what caused the Champlain Towers South building’s collapse and what changes in laws, building codes and regulations could be made to prevent another failure of that kind.
The death toll is now 18. There are 145 people missing and 139 people accounted for.
In other developments:
A video posted on TikTok shows water gushing from the roof of the Champlain Towers South garage moments before the building collapsed.
Structural concerns pause search at Surfside as Biden meets with families
July 1 - One week after the Champlain Towers South building collapsed, rescue crews have to stop working for 15 hours amid concerns that the remaining structure could topple. The new challenges arise the day President Joe Biden arrives in South Florida to meet with first responders and grieving families. He also makes a brief stop at one of the memorial walls.
It’s the first time rescue workers pause their efforts for a significant amount of time.
The search resumes at 4:45 p.m. after structural engineers determine it is safe to resume digging. But the rescue effort — for the time being — only continues on three of the nine grids because of loose concrete on upper floors of the building and the instability of the rubble.
Levine Cava also announces that the county is “planning for the likely demolition of the building,” even as the search and rescue continues.
No bodies or survivors were found this day. The death toll remained at 18 with 145 people missing and 130 accounted for.
Miami-Dade mayor signs off on condo demolition as Elsa nears
July 2 - Levine Cava signs off on the demolition of the standing remains of Champlain South. She says engineers are considering options but that the demolition likely won’t happen until late July as staff works on planning, approvals and site work.
Four more bodies are also recovered, raising the death toll to 22. The number of missing people is revised downward from 145 to 126.
Timeline for Surfside condo demolition speeds up as death toll hits 24
July 3 — With Tropical Storm Elsa heading to South Florida, officials speed up the timeline for the complete demolition of Champlain South.
Crews plan to drill holes into the columns of the first and second floors and plant explosives there, which will be detonated by Monday morning — just ahead of powerful winds from Tropical Storm Elsa.
By the evening, rescue efforts are halted for preparations.
The collapse has left at least 24 people dead and more than 120 still missing.
Rest of Champlain South is demolished
July 4 — The 10:30 p.m. controlled implosion topples the remaining 12-story structure in a matter of seconds, sending a plume of dust and smoke into the sky. Within minutes, a thick haze envelopes the neighborhood. By 11 p.m., the air clears.
Levine Cava says the demolition left “only dust” on the existing rubble pile. She says crews did everything possible to find and rescue pets, including going into condo units ahead of the demolition to search for animals before the rest of the building was demolished. She says no pets were found.
The demolition allows search crews to look through the rubble for victims, including in areas that were previously blocked off, without fear of another collapse.
Just a few days later, on Day 14 of the search, the rescue mission switches to recovery of the dead.