First responders continuing the search and recovery mission in the debris of the collapsed Surfside condo tower on Saturday worked at times through heavy downpours and strong wind gusts to uncover more of the former residents and visitors of the Champlain Towers South, with perhaps dozens of victims yet to be found.
The recovery effort — which overnight pulled seven more bodies from the rubble — briefly paused at 7 a.m. after a lightning strike. But the grueling, gut-wrenching task went on amid intense heat, and police-escorted trucks carrying debris from the site were seen on the Julia Tuttle Causeway and the Florida Turnpike.
The death toll in the partial collapse of the 12-story condo tower, the cause of which remains unknown, now stands at 86, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told media Saturday morning.
Of the 86 victims, 62 have now been identified, most recently a 5-year-old child, a longtime Belen Jesuit employee whose husband and son also died in the collapse and a Paraguayan nanny who days before the collapse left her home country for the first time to travel to Surfside with her employers.
There are “potentially” 43 people still missing following what may be the worst building failure in U.S. history, Levine Cava said. “We can only truly account for a missing person who is deceased once an identification is made.”
Officials are still working on making the missing list as accurate as possible, by cross-referencing addresses from the U.S. Postal Service, driver’s license records and the condo building roster.
Saturday’s work came on the 17th day following the sudden collapse of the oceanside condo building, which partially caved in at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of June 24.
The pace of finding victims has increased substantially since the demolition of the remaining part of the building nearly a week ago, as rescue workers have accessed a wider area. Significant removal of the debris pile has freed up the space for rescuers to search areas they couldn’t get to before.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told media Saturday that the pace of the operation makes it “very likely that the site will be clear sooner than expected.”
“The progress there remains intense,” he said. “Much of the original pile is at ground level or below. “
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said he didn’t have a timeline for when the site will be cleared.
There are two different operations underway, Burkett explained. The first is the recovery effort to find victims at the original collapse site. The second is rubble removal process around the section of the building that was demolished last Sunday.
The work is not only demanding of search crews, but also potentially hazardous, as Burkett said “a significant amount of dust” from the site continued to billow.
Levine Cava said Saturday that hazardous material technicians are “constantly sampling and monitoring” the air quality at the site, and all first responders working on the debris pile and in the surrounding areas are wearing proper protective gear, including masks.
When workers come off the debris pile, they are sprayed clean so as to avoid cross contamination.
“As you can see, the debris pile is enormous,” Tony Trim, of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Florida Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, said in a video posted on the fire department’s Twitter Saturday. “There are 150 workers breaking and breaching concrete and steel.”
The video panned to workers using hand-picks and small tools to work through the debris, and then showed a line of workers in a staging area, wearing pink respirators.
The mayor said the crews are monitoring asbestos levels, but that none has showed up in tests.
On the collapse site, still massive amounts of debris to clear
In the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue video, Trim narrates as bulldozers and cranes lift colossal chunks of debris off the pile. The concrete piles are dense, with iron and other material strewn throughout, and workers on top of the pile are dwarfed by the sheer amount of material.
In front of the site, hand tools sit in charging stations powered by generators, and are frequently changed out as batteries die. Pallets that line the street near the collapse site are stacked with rebar cutters, chipping hammers and electric saws.
“The size and scope of this operation, along with the large amounts of concrete and steel that we have to move ... there’s no way humanly possible that we can move all of it without this heavy-duty equipment,” Trim said.
Riviera Beach firefighters Elizabeth Hautamaki and David Morrison finished their first shift Saturday afternoon. While first responders up until recently worked in search of possible survivors, Hautamaki and Morrison are scouring the rubble on a mission to recove the remains of those who died.
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” Hautamaki said.
Morrison said the experience has been unlike anything he’s come across over the course of his career.
“It’s a lot more overwhelming than you would imagine,” he said. “It’s a lot more than I would have thought.”
As they were finishing their shift, they were met by members of the Lutheran Church Charities Confort K-9 Ministries from Northbrook, Illinois, who had emotional support golden retrievers with them for the firefighters to pet.
Across Miami-Dade, a rush to secure buildings
The cause of the tragedy is still unknown and the renowned structural engineer hired to study the collapse told the Miami Herald Saturday that he does not “have any inkling right now on why this occurred.”
Meanwhile, as the recovery efforts continue, Miami-Dade cities are scrambling to ensure buildings are in line with the critical 40-year checkup the Surfside condo was about to undergo when it fell.
After the June 24 collapse, Miami Beach sent inspectors to 507 older buildings. The city, which had already closed one building in South Beach, flagged another 10 with violations this past week, according to a Friday memo from the city manager. The cited structures included an apartment building that according to an attorney was already slated for demolition and on Saturday afternoon appeared to have been vacated in the face of a threatened evacuation order.
On July 2, North Miami Beach ordered the evacuation of the 10-story Crestview Towers Condominium, deeming it not safe for occupancy.
The most prominent building shuttered so far: Miami-Dade County’s civil courthouse, whose recertification process has been overseen by the City of Miami, was closed Friday over structural concerns.
Passersby reflect in the rain
The rain Saturday didn’t keep people away from the growing memorial wall set up to honor victims of the building collapse on Harding Avenue. Flowers, candles, written prayers and inspirational messages and photographs are added to the wall every day.
Cyclists, joggers and other well-wishers stopped to pray, observe a moment of silence and to deliver more items to the memorial.
Michelle Toussaint drove down from Boynton Beach Saturday to place a laminated prayer to St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals, in memory of all the pets that were lost when the building fell.
“I’ve been a huge pet lover all my life. I have a dog that I rescued almost 11 years ago, and he’s my world,” Toussaint said. “And, I think what hits me about the pets is they are family. You hear a lot of people who say, ‘Why would they want to rescue pets? They’re just pets.’ And they’re not. That’s their family.”
Toussaint said she was inspired to make the trip to Surfside after hearing news that rescuers found a surviving family’s cat, Binx, on Friday.
“It’s a miracle. It’s a total miracle, and that’s going to help that family get through this,” Toussaint said. “So, I wanted to come down here and pay my respects, not only for the people, but for the pets too.”
Miami Heald reporters Douglas Hanks, Marie-Rose Sheinerman and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.