Six more victims of Champlain Towers condo collapse identified as recovery nears end

The recovery effort at Champlain Towers South may be coming to a close, three weeks to the day after the building collapsed.

Miami-Dade Police identified four more victims Thursday. The death toll now stands at 97, with 92 bodies identified, and next of kin for each of those 92 victims notified, said Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Police.

Zabaleta said the department only had 97 open missing persons reports, although he cautioned it didn’t mean the recovery effort was over.

“The numbers line up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re done. We don’t know,” he said. “Until we pick up every piece of rubble and clear it, we can’t say we’re done.”

The police department’s tally differs slightly from a statement released Wednesday evening by Miami-Dade County, which said that 90 bodies of the 97 recovered had been identified and that there were eight outstanding missing persons reports.

Rachel Johnson, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, told the Miami Herald Thursday night that from this point the county will not offer updates on the death toll, only the bodies identified and families notified.

“We’re not going to share updates to that number,” she said. “This is because the process of making identifications becomes much more difficult as time goes on and we want to share the most accurate number with the public.”

Zabaleta said the recovery effort isn’t officially concluded yet, and he wasn’t sure when it would be.

“We really haven’t put a timeline to it, but we know we’re making progress. At this point it’s still a 24-hour process,” he said. “We’re just going to continue until we’re done, done.”

More victims identified

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Thursday that with five people still unaccounted for, it’s increasingly difficult to identify the human remains recovered from the collapse.

“What’s left of those victims gets smaller and smaller, and it’s just more difficult to finalize that,” he said.

He said search crews continue using dogs to look for any human remains still left in the rubble, but cracks in the foundation have allowed water to seep into the search area, further complicating the efforts.

“I’m convinced that everything humanly possible has been done to pull everybody out,” Burkett said. “It is in God’s hands now.”

Ike Hedaya, whose sister Estelle Hedaya is still unaccounted for in the collapse, said authorities believe they have recovered everyone from the rubble. He said families, including his own, are waiting for the medical examiner to identify the remaining victims killed in the collapse.

“The medical examiner has everyone, and they’re working diligently to try to match the DNA...” he said. “Hopefully we get an answer soon.”

He said he was thankful for the work search teams have done to reunite families with their loved ones.

“We know it’s not anyone’s fault, everyone’s doing everything they can,” he said

There are at least five more bodies to be identified, a process that relies on DNA matching. Six new victims were identified Thursday, including Miguel Leonardo Kaufman, 65, Myriam Notkin, 81, Michelle Anna Pazos, 23, and Mihai Radulescu, 82, who were recovered on Friday. Rosa Saez, 70, was recovered Saturday. Valeria Barth, 14, was recovered Sunday.

Barth and her parents, Luis Fernando and Catalina, traveled to Surfside from Colombia to see family and get vaccinated against COVID-19. Notkin, a retired paralegal and banker, lived in Unit 302 with her husband, a retired physical education teacher in Miami Beach.

From recovery to investigation

As the recovery period draws to a close, the forensic analysis of what caused the collapse can kick into gear. But outside engineers, including Surfside’s newly hired structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer, said they’ve been blocked from beginning their investigation.

Kilsheimer said he’s been allowed to walk around the outside of the site but hasn’t been allowed to do any of the usual testing on the actual pile of rubble, like sonic testing or ground-penetrating radar. He said he’s been told Miami-Dade police may continue their investigation for at least a month before he’s allowed on site.

“It’s slowing us down, and we’re having to do things out of order. I understand they have to do their job,” he said.

Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said the city wants to know what went wrong as soon as possible so it can start coming up with solutions. She noted that the city’s consultant, Kilsheimer, has decades of experience, including investigating the 9/11 attacks.

“If it was good enough for the Pentagon, it should be good enough for the county. Let the guy in. Let him get his samples,” she said. “I’d like to hear a good reason. Why can’t he have access to the site?”

In response to the complaints, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle released a statement reminding engineers and attorneys that law enforcement is in charge of the scene because it’s an active investigation.

“It is my understanding that once NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology], the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Miami-Dade Police Departments determine that it is safe and appropriate for others to gain access to the site, they will be permitted to do so under guidelines set forth by those agencies,” she wrote.

In a statement, Levine Cava said that it was “essential that we get answers and accountability about what happened in Surfside, for the victims and their families and for the safety of all the residents of Miami-Dade County.”

She added that that NIST team was performing extensive testing, measurements, photographing and 3D imagining to “collect as much data as possible to support the full investigation.”