Death Toll Climbs in Miami Condo Collapse as Recovery Efforts Continue

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  • Daniella Levine Cava
    American lawyer and politician
Andrea Sarcos/AFP via Getty
Andrea Sarcos/AFP via Getty

MIAMI—Rescue crews found another body in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo on Saturday, bringing the number of those confirmed dead to five.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced the grim news at an evening press conference, saying the number of those unaccounted for has thus dropped to 156. The fifth victim has yet to be identified.

“Today our search and rescue teams found another body in the rubble, and as well, our search has revealed some human remains. The process of identifying these victims is very difficult,” Cava said, adding that authorities would rely on DNA testing.

Miami-Dade police later identified four of the five confirmed fatalities: Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83; Gladys Lozano, 79; and Michael LaFont, 54.

The discovery of more remains on Saturday came after recovery efforts picked up again following a delay caused by a “deep-seated fire” spreading among the rubble of the collapsed 12-story apartment complex.

Officials briefing media on the situation at the Champlain Towers South, where four people died and 159 were feared missing after the tower collapsed suddenly Thursday, had said they were facing “incredible difficulties” in their round-the-clock search-and-rescue operation due to the fire and smoke.

“This is very frustrating because we want it all done. We want to rescue as many people as possible, we want to get to the bottom of the situation,” said Miami-Dade Commission Chair Jose Diaz, seemingly addressing the growing frustration of victims’ families at the speed of the rescue operation. “But we can’t because the process is very slow. And we have to understand that—it has to be done properly.”

Nearly 48 Hours Since Miami Condo Collapse, Son of Missing Couple Says There’s ‘No Hope’

Questions were also beginning to spread about why the tragic collapse had not been prevented. A structural engineer had identified scores of vulnerabilities in the building’s foundation in a 2018 report, and the building had been the subject of at least one lawsuit since 2015.

Cava said county officials would also conduct an audit of all buildings in the county over 40 years old in the next 30 days. Cava told reporters she “knew nothing” about the 2018 engineer’s report on the southern building.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett urged residents to evacuate the nearby Champlain Towers North, which was built around the same time by the same developer. Vice Mayor Tina Paul said she toured nearby buildings on Friday night and was given photos from a resident in Champlain East showing cracks in the parking garage.

“These were pretty severe cracks, I hadn’t seen anything like that,” she told MSNBC.

Residents of the two other buildings were not ordered to evacuate, but were advised to do so.

Burkett said he was working to relocate residents of the Champlain Towers North, stressing that he cannot guarantee the safety of those who choose to stay in the building just 100 yards from the collapsed tower.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Erik Bojnansky</div>
Erik Bojnansky

While he said it would be up to residents to decide if they want to evacuate, he didn’t hold back in making clear the seriousness of the situation: “I’d be gone,” he said.

Many residents of the neighboring towers did not hesitate to get out.

James, a resident of Champlain Towers East who wished to provide only his first name, said he and his girlfriend had both evacuated from the building at 3 a.m.

He said his girlfriend was at home when the Champlain Towers South building fell, and she had said “it was like a hurricane went through.”

“Everything in the house shook. Next thing she saw dust,” he said.

Engineer Had Warned of ‘Major Structural Damage’ to Miami Beach Condo

Meanwhile, the delays caused by the fire and other complications were beginning to take their toll on the rescue crews. Trauma surgeon Howard Lieberman told CNN that crews had heard tapping in the rubble on Thursday, but that it slowly faded throughout the day. Rescue workers were now finding teddy bears, boxes of diapers, and family pictures amidst the wreckage.

For the friends and families of the 156 missing people, hope of finding survivors alive grew increasingly dire by the hour. Photos of missing residents adorned a makeshift memorial on Saturday.

Fortuna Smukler, a North Miami Beach city commissioner and a family friend to missing couple Myriam Caspi Notkin and Arnold “Arnie” Notkin, said early reports that Arnie was seen alive gave his family a glimmer of false hope.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Myriam Caspi Notkin and Arnold “Arnie” Notkin.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Fortuna Smukler</div>

Myriam Caspi Notkin and Arnold “Arnie” Notkin.

Courtesy of Fortuna Smukler

Myriam’s daughter, who is Smukler’s childhood friend, frantically called Smukler from New York. “If he is alive, then mom is alive. We can’t find them. They haven’t called us,” Smukler recalled the friend saying.

Smukler then hit the phones and decided to post the Notkins’ image on Facebook, asking if anyone had seen them. It was shared 1800 times in less than 24 hours.

But the sighting turned out to be wrong. “It was someone who looked like him,” Smukler told The Daily Beast.

Witnesses on Saturday recalled chilling scenes that underscored the grim reality now facing rescuers and anxious families.

Cliede M. Carmenates, who lives in the Stella Maria Mar condo just west of Champlain Towers South, was up watching the Brazil v. Colombia soccer match on Thursday when she heard a loud crash at 1:20 a.m. Those still awake in her building ran outside to see another section come crashing down.

“I saw people falling out,” she told The Daily Beast.

Despite the difficulties on Saturday, Cava told reporters her first priority remained finding survivors.

“To the community and the world: please be patient, please stand with us, please continue your prayers,” she said. “We are not going to stop, we need your support.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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