Number of missing in Surfside condo collapse rises to 159, Miami-Dade mayor says

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The grim task of recovering the bodies of victims at the site of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside began overnight and continued into a somber Friday in an unfolding tragedy that is feared to be the worst building failure in Florida history.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday morning that the number of people who are unaccounted for in Thursday’s building collapse increased to 159 — dramatically higher than the 99 reported earlier. The official death toll rose to four, as three more people were found in the rubble.

On Friday afternoon, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office identified the first of the deceased victims as Stacie Fang, 54, who died at Aventura Hospital. The cause was blunt-force injuries. Her son was rescued by firefighters on Thursday morning.

She said 120 people are now accounted for but stressed that all the numbers are “fluid” because some residents may not have been in the building when it collapsed.

“Unfortunately, this has been a tragic night,” Levine Cava said, while stressing that rescuers will “continue searching because we still have hope that we will find people alive.”

The list of unaccounted people was compiled from missing person reports and data collected at the reunification site at the Surfside Community Center, which was emptied Friday afternoon as family members transitioned to a new center at the Grand Beach Hotel one block north.

Demanding answers

Returning to Surfside for the second day on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed mounting questions about the absence of any explanation for the collapse of the beachfront condominium that has left so many still unaccounted for.

“I’ve also been talking with Mayor Cava and we both agree. We need a definitive explanation for how this could have happened. And that’s an explanation that needs to be an accurate explanation,’‘ he said. “It’s an explanation that, you know, we don’t want to get wrong, obviously, but at the same time I do think it’s important that it’s timely because you have a lot of families here — you have families that lost loved ones in this building collapse. They have a right to know.”

Daniella Levine Cava, Mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks to family and friends of victims during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday June 24th., 2021.
Daniella Levine Cava, Mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks to family and friends of victims during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday June 24th., 2021.

He added that he was aware the question is haunting many in Florida.

“I think there’s a lot of other people throughout this community and really throughout Florida who want to know: How could a building just collapse like that?’‘ he asked.

To that end, he said he spoke with President Joe Biden who “reiterated his administration’s full support” and offered “investigative personnel.” DeSantis also offered the state’s full cooperation to find answers.

“We’ll support whatever we can to do this right, but also to do it timely, so that we get the answers to the families, and then we get the answer to that to the people of Florida,’‘ he said.

Relief for the rescuers

As the Surfside building collapse response entered its second overnight operation, Miami-Dade County was preparing for larger pieces of equipment and more relief crews.

An international squad of rescue workers from Israel and Mexico were taking shifts Friday night, county spokesperson Rachel Johnson said. She said the team could be identified by green shirts. They’re part of a broader roster of rescue crews who stepped in after the first wave of shifts Thursday and Friday by county crews.

Details remained scarce on the specifics of Miami-Dade’s rescue operation, but Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said roads are being cleared to make way for large cranes that haven’t been wanted during the early phase of the rescue.

“We’re bringing in equipment that can move the debris,” he said at an evening press conference. “This is a very strategic process. ... With this type of collapse, it’s extremely difficult. As this equipment comes in, we’ll use it to assist moving certain pieces of debris. We can’t just move it all at once.”

The new equipment was cited by police evicting media crews from their perches on Harding Avenue, a block away from the collapse with a backdrop of the rubble. Cominsky said the area is needed for new equipment. Miami-Dade police also closed Byron Avenue to northbound traffic at 85th Street, temporarily ending the last northbound route on the barrier island that includes Surfside. Police said local traffic could pass through, but traffic was stalled after 7 p.m. for five blocks before the checkpoint.

“Traffic patterns are changing as new equipment comes in,” county Police Director Freddy Ramirez said at the press conference.

A new reunification center

At midafternoon, a county bus idled outside the Surfside Community Center, where families lugging tote bags emerged in small groups to board it. Families and friends missing loved ones have been there at the former family reunification center for more than 24 hours, and the mood was more exhausted and despairing than the day before.

From left to right, Fayzah Bushnaq and Maria Fernanda Martinez comfort each other next to the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.
From left to right, Fayzah Bushnaq and Maria Fernanda Martinez comfort each other next to the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.

After several people got on, the bus made the one-block venture north to the Grand Beach Hotel, a luxury property and the site of the new reunification center. A valet service parked and retrieved vehicles for other people who were also making the hotel their uncertain home until search and rescue crews find signs of their family members and loved ones.

Some hotel employees wheeled in supplies — trays of bagels and boxes of tissues — but large trash bags of donations carried by volunteers were turned away due to a lack of space to put everything.

As a morose Shabbat approached, families emerged from the hotel wearing kippot and sunglasses to walk north toward the small strip of businesses on Harding, past a throng of media cameras. Some whispered in hushed tones about potential signs of life in the rubble, clinging to hope that a miracle would bring their loved ones back home.

The missing

Among those still missing are Cassondra Stratton, who lived in the Champlain Towers South condo with her husband, Mike Stratton. A political strategist, he had left Monday on a business trip for Washington, D.C., where he got a frantic call from his wife early Thursday morning about their condo building shaking. Then the line went dead.

“It was 1:30 a.m., I’ll never, never forget that,” he said.

Now Cassondra Stratton, a 40-year-old model, actress and Pilates instructor, is one of the unaccounted for — feared to be trapped under the rubble as Miami-Dade search and rescue teams continue looking for those still alive.

“She was the most fun, vivacious person you could ever imagine,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “She was full of life, we were always doing something.”

Fayzah Bushnaq, 27, from Virgina writes a message on the sand close to the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.
Fayzah Bushnaq, 27, from Virgina writes a message on the sand close to the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.

Latin American victims

About 30 people from Latin America and the Caribbean — including Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Argentina — are among those reported missing by friends and family following the collapse, highlighting the international reach of the tragedy.

While the cause of the 12-story oceanfront condo tower’s collapse remains unknown, Levine Cava and other county officials confirmed that there was no sinkhole under the building.

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who also serves as the state fire marshal, said on CNN early Friday morning the rescue mission would continue into the day, with search and rescue teams from Naples and Orlando coming to relieve Miami-Dade searchers who had been working their way through the rubble for more than 24 hours.

He said search and rescue teams were using everything at their disposal in the desperate search for life, cutting into the concrete with saws and using infrared cameras after boring through holes in the rubble, along with sonar and specially trained dogs. And when they think they have heard a noise, often the dozens of workers on site will go still and silent in the hope of figuring out where it came from, he said.

“The live active rescue will continue,” Patronis said without going into how long he thinks a person can survive under the debris. “The families deserve it.”

So far, since a child and his mother were rescued on Thursday morning, workers had not found any survivors under the tons of shattered concrete and rebar at Champlain Towers South condo.

A crane sifts through rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.
A crane sifts through rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.

Rescuers battled intermittent fires in the rubble pile Friday, hampering retrieval efforts and clouding the area with thick smoke.

Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said crews brought in heavy machinery overnight to remove rubble from above. The rescuers boring through the concrete from the garage under the building are only entering the passageways after structural engineers determine what is safe and where pylons should be placed to bolster support.

Asked if he believes there is a chance of anyone still being alive, Jadallah would only say, “We have hope.”

He said crews underground are also now using jackhammers to break through the concrete.

He said workers heard sounds overnight, and while using sensitive equipment they stood silent as they tried to determine just what those sounds were. He said he didn’t believe any of them were from survivors.

“It’s not necessarily human sound,” Jadallah said. “It could be twisting steel.”

Search and rescue personnel with dogs search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.
Search and rescue personnel with dogs search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday, June 24.

Even as the outlook of finding survivors grew more grim, eight search and rescue teams from around the state were standing by to help teams who had worked the past 24 hours from Miami and Miami-Dade. Homicide detectives also began working with the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner overnight in the hope of being able to identify any recovered victims.

Miami Beach Sen. Jason Pizzo was at the scene overnight Thursday and into early Friday morning, where he watched as tactical teams of six worked to extricate bodies from the rubble.

He saw one body taken in a yellow body bag and another that was marked.

A homicide unit tent was set up along the beach, Pizzo said, and staff under Medical Examiner Dr. Emma Lew were carrying the yellow bags.

Community vigil

A short distance away at the Surfside Community Center, dozens of families kept an informal vigil at the family reunification site 24 hours since the building partially collapsed. A gust of wind and rain forced people seated outside the center to take refuge under the building’s central walkway.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, spiritual leader of the Shul of Bal Harbour, prays during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday night June 24th., 2021. At left are Rabbi Mendy Levy, Chabad Chaplaincy Network Chaplain -- Mount Sinai Medical Center and Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, spiritual leader of the Shul of Bal Harbour, prays during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday night June 24th., 2021. At left are Rabbi Mendy Levy, Chabad Chaplaincy Network Chaplain -- Mount Sinai Medical Center and Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

Close to midnight, it was a soggy scene. Some relatives of the victims, who had been there since Thursday morning, were awaiting results to DNA swabs that would help identify their loved ones. Volunteers continued to bring in food, and others offered T-shirts, towels and blankets.

On television, Local 10 cameras captured the scene as one body wrapped in a yellow bag was brought out of the debris.

After the rain subsided, dust and smoke from the ongoing work on the debris pile had not settled.

At about the same time, President Biden signed an order declaring a disaster in Florida and authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial and logistical support to local officials and individuals. Earlier on Thursday, Levine Cava and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed their own disaster declarations, triggering the process for the president to activate FEMA’s response.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration may help determine the cause of the Surfside building collapse.

The agency, which also investigated the Florida International University bridge collapse in 2018, was on the scene hours after the Surfside building fell on Thursday.

Erika Ruthman, an OSHA spokesperson, said the agency remains in Surfside and is “working with local authorities to gather information to determine if the event is related to any active construction or maintenance operations on the structure.”

Surfside is now a warren of coned-off streets, one-ways, and detours as crews limit access to the site. Harding Avenue, the usually bustling commercial southbound route parallel to Collins Avenue, was completely cleared of any parked cars.

Day began breaking over the site around 6 a.m., the rising sun partially obscured by plumes of dust and ash as crews continued to try to drill their way into the collapsed structure. Another small fire appeared to have broken out, filling the air with an acrid, smoky scent.

About 70 of the Champlain Towers South’s 136 apartments were destroyed or damaged, according to Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management.

The property, at 8777 Collins Ave., a block north of Miami Beach, was completed in 1981.

Previously, the worst building failure in Florida happened that same year.

The five-story condominium called Harbour Cay in Cocoa Beach collapsed March 27, 1981, due to multiple construction and design problems just as workers were pouring concrete for the roof slab, according to Florida Today. The building “pancaked,” killing 11 people and injuring 23 others.

Late Thursday, a lawyer representing a proposed class of Champlain Towers South homeowners filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming the condo association failed “to secure and safeguard the lives and property” of lead plaintiff Manuel Drezner and other residents. Drezner was not in the condo building when it collapsed.

“As a lawyer, I can’t fix what is irreparable,” said attorney Brad Sohn. “But what I can do is fight to immediately fully compensate these victims so that they can focus all of their energy on healing as best they can. Our investigation continues, but we strongly believe this was preventable.”

Faith groups

Meanwhile, religious organizations offered their assistance to victims of the disaster, which struck at the center of a strong Jewish community.

Two faith-based groups of note were represented at the Surfside Community Center on 93rd Street and Collins Avenue

One, Israel-based Hatzalah (Hebrew for “rescue” or “relief”), has been in operation in South Florida for 13 years and, according to Coordinator Andre Roitman, was among the first groups to be on the scene of the disaster site early Thursday. A bill signed into law June 14 by Gov. Ron DeSantis authorized Hatzalah ambulances to use flashing lights and sirens when responding to disasters.

Roitman said about a dozen Hatzalah volunteers continue to circulate between the site and the center, bringing supplies like pallets of bottled water and prescriptions, which many survivors inside the building had left behind as they rushed to safety.

Family and friends wait for for updates at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave in Surfside during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday June 24th., 2021.
Family and friends wait for for updates at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave in Surfside during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday June 24th., 2021.

Another faith-based group was also present at the center Friday morning: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Eight young men on mission in South Florida congregated outside the reunification center around 8:45 a.m. Two of them, identifying themselves as Elder Tarter, 19, and Elder Merrill, 21, said providing comfort to victims and their families was part of their calling.

“We’re here to try to take some of that pain away,” Merrill said.

A steady flow of donations has been pouring into the Shul of Bal Harbour, where a group of around 20 volunteers unloaded crates of food, blankets, and more to be distributed to community members displaced by the condo collapse.

Isack Merenfeld, a member of Skylake Synagogue, an Orthodox shul in North Miami Beach, said he quickly rented a U-Haul after he got a call from his rabbi, and brought his two sons along to help unload the donations. Skylake served as a drop-off point for anyone who wanted to donate.

With the Sabbath approaching on Friday night, the observant Jewish community has collected separate boxes of challah, wine, and other necessities for the weekly ritual day of rest.

Every food and drink item transported in his rented truck was kosher, Merenfeld said. Other trucks were also headed for the Surfside Community Center now being used as a family reunification center.

Among non-food items were air mattresses, pillows, clothing, and electronics like phone chargers.

Asked whether community members like him plan to invite displaced Jewish neighbors to their for Shabbat tomorrow night, Merenfeld said, “Obviously that will happen. Without question.”

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