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SURFSIDE, Fla. – The bodies of two children were found in the rubble of the collapsed condo building outside Miami on Wednesday, raising the death toll in the disaster to 18.
The children were 4 and 10 years old, said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who provided the update at an afternoon news conference. The number of missing people is now 145.
"Any loss of life, especially given the nature of this unexpected, unprecedented event, is a tragedy,'' Levine Cava said. "But the loss of our children is too great to bear."
Earlier in the day, Levine Cava has said four additional victims had been identified, at the time bringing the total to 16. Search officials vowed to press on with the rescue effort around the clock despite the possibility of tropical storms approaching the area.
As families cling to fading hope, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said many have asked him when efforts will turn from a rescue to a recovery mission and wondered how long a person could survive under the heaps of rubble.
Authorities reiterated that work at the site was a search-and-rescue effort, and workers would continue sifting through the rubble, listening and looking for signs of life.
"We're not leaving anybody behind," Burkett said Wednesday. "This is going to go until we pull everyone out of there."
Families have also expressed frustration over possible severe weather in the coming days that may cause further delays in massive search and rescue efforts that include hundreds of rescuers rotating in 12-hour shifts at the site. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit the site of the collapse Thursday.
Here's what we know Wednesday:
President Joe Biden visit:Biden is going to Florida on Thursday to visit site of collapsed condo building
From hotel next door, building collapse sounded like 'bombs dropping in the air'
Daniel Groves thought he was hearing "bombs dropping in the air'' when a terrible noise woke him up along with his family early in the morning of June 24. From the balcony of their hotel room in Surfside, Florida, all Groves could see was clouds of dust, and as evacuation alarms sounded, he thought a tornado or thunderstorm had hit the area.
The reality was far more grim, as Groves soon discovered when he walked out of the hotel and saw half of the Champlain Towers South structure in pieces next door to the building where he and his family were staying.
"The scene was something out of a nightmare, people crying, looking for their friends and family,'' he told USA TODAY. "I saw things I never want to talk about again."
— Gabriela Miranda
Agency that examines 'disasters and failures' to investigate cause of of collapse
The National Institute of Standards and Technology has established a National Construction Safety Team to investigate the building collapse, its director, James Olthoff, said Wednesday evening in Miami.
Olthoff said it will be a "fact-finding, not a fault-finding technical investigation" that could potentially take several years to complete. It won't end until the team finds the "likely cause" of the collapse.
The NIST is a non-regulatory agency that looks at "disasters and failures" caused by earthquakes, fire and tornadoes. The team will include NIST staff members and outside experts.
— Katherine Lewin, Florida Times-Union
Israeli forces provide comfort, aid in search
There were many Jewish residents at the Champlain Towers South, and the Israel Defense Forces have been aiding in both the search-and-rescue effort and in providing families information and emotional support.
Nearly a week after the Surfside building crumbled, IDF deputy commander Elad Edri acknowledges the chances of finding any survivors are slim. Still, his team works with families trying to identify the best spots to search for their loved ones, or their bodies.
Relatives are asked detailed questions, from who slept where to which part of the apartment a family member liked to sit in, any tidbit that might help.
“We hope to provide them comfort because they need it,'' Edri said. "We hope to provide them with information because all the time we are advancing with the things we know.”
— Katherine Lewin, Florida Times-Union
Families voice frustration over weather delays
Possible severe weather in the coming days may cause delays in search and rescue efforts, Kevin Guthrie, of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Wednesday.
Guthrie said his team's working with the National Hurricane Center and state meteorologists to develop contingency plans for severe weather, including tropical cyclones, adding that they may need to free up state assets centered at the site of the collapse in order to respond to severe weather. On Tuesday, Guthrie said the threat of severe weather prompted state officials to ask the federal government for the additional team.
"If a system does develop, we have a contingency plan ... of how we'll continue to respond here while responding to the hurricane," Guthrie said.
Two storm systems in the Atlantic may become tropical depressions in the coming days, but it's unclear whether they may affect the U.S., according to the National Hurricane Center, which gives one of them an 80% chance of development.
Rescue officials Tuesday afternoon sounded a horn for a second time during the day’s work, signaling for workers to temporarily evacuate for an approaching storm with lightning.
Burkett, the Surfside mayor, said he has received questions from frustrated family members about why rescue efforts halt during thunderstorms.
Trump's Florida rally on despite report that DeSantis wants it canceled
Whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis approves or not, former President Donald Trump is going through with his rally Saturday in Sarasota.
The conservative Washington Examiner reported Wednesday that the office of the Republican governor, who has been immersed in the aftermath of the Surfside building collapse, made a "direct plea" to Trump's team to cancel the rally.
But Florida GOP Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré, who previously served as DeSantis' communications director, said the rally is going forward as planned. DeSantis' campaign for the governor's post got a major boost when Trump endorsed him in 2018 and the two have remained political allies.
“The governor's very glad that the president is holding the rally in Sarasota and that it’s going to be about celebrating the birth of our nation," Aguirre Ferré said. "No, he doesn’t want the president to cancel.”
— Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Officials ask for donations to support grieving families
People can send donations to families affected by the condo collapse at supportsurfside.org. Officials cautioned that one fake donation website has already been reported.
Over the course of two news conferences, Burkett told the story of 12-year-old Ellie Shella, who lost her father and an uncle to the collapse and was praying when he met her at the site.
On Tuesday evening, Burkett said Ellie's mother is in financial distress, pointing out Ellie's father was the provider for the family.
Ellie's mother has asked for assistance for her family. Burkett said he told her story to Coral Gables Community Foundation CEO Mary Snow. The organization operates the website supportsurfside.org and has collected $1.9 million in donations.
"It's working, your donations are having an impact," Burkett said.
State Attorney plans to pursue grand jury investigation
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a Tuesday news conference that she is working with experts to identify reforms in building standards and other changes "to ensure a tragedy like this will never, ever happen again."
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would pursue a grand jury investigation into what led to the collapse.
Levine Cava said she fully supports such an inquiry. Asked what the grand jury would be looking for, Levine Cava said, "Like all of us, answers."
“We have people waiting and waiting and waiting for news,” Levine Cava told reporters. “We have them coping with the news that they might not have their loved ones come out alive and still hope against hope that they will. They’re learning that some of their loved ones will come out as body parts. This is the kind of information that is just excruciating for everyone.”
The scrutiny won't end there. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden believes the reasons for the collapse need to be investigated, and various federal agencies are already providing expertise.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology – an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce that also investigated the 9/11 terrorist attack – has already indicated it will examine the disaster, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state could get involved if necessary.
State Sen. Jason Pizzo isn't waiting. He told the USA TODAY Network that he plans to file legislation that would likely focus on building requirements, reinspection standards for older buildings, the risk of seawater intrusion and the financial obligations of condominium associations.
'Significantly worse': Doomed Miami condo's concrete deterioration was accelerating in April, condo letter says
Crews battle weather, time in identifying victims
Emergency crews aren't just battling summer weather, smoldering fire and dangerous debris in their race to find unaccounted-for victims. They're fighting time, heat, water and other factors that will make it harder to identify the dead.
The longer the search takes, the more likely it is that human remains will have decomposed significantly, making DNA identification more challenging, experts say.
Investigators first look for clothing or for IDs in victims' pockets or purses. However, most residents were asleep and may not have been wearing easily identifiable clothing and may not have had their driver's licenses.
The bodies of many victims may have been crushed in the collapse, making easy identification impossible. The next option for investigators is to look for teeth and dental work, which can be compared with dental X-rays. They look for signs of medical implants, which might have identification numbers, and check fingerprints against official records.
But the force of tons of rubble may have pulverized jawbones and teeth. Exposure to South Florida's heat, humidity and rainfall, plus a smoldering fire, water and other liquids in the rubble may have obliterated fingerprints, said Victor Weedn, Maryland's chief medical examiner and a DNA expert on the faculty of George Washington University's Department of Forensic Sciences.
– Kevin McCoy and Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
Time, weather, conditions:The extremely difficult task of identifying Miami condo victims.
Remembering those who have died
Authorities released the names of victims who have been identified: Stacie Fang, 54; Marcus Joseph Guara, 52; Frank Kleiman, 55; Michael Davis Altman, 50; Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife Christina Beatriz Elvira de Oliwkowicz, 74; Luis Bermudez, 26, and his mother Ana Ortiz, 46; Antonio Lozano, 83; Gladys Lozano, 79; Manuel LaFont, 54; and Hilda Noriega, 92.
The first victim to be identified was Fang, whose 15-year-old son was pulled alive from the wreckage.
Noriega was the latest victim to be identified, and her family was notified Tuesday evening. After living in her sixth-floor condo for more than 20 years, Noriega had recently put it up for sale and was planning to move in with relatives.
In a statement, the family thanked first responders and officials for identifying her. Noriega's son, Carlos Noriega, is the police chief of the nearby suburb of North Bay Village.
"The Noriegas have lost the 'heart and soul' and 'matriarch' of their family but will get through this time by embracing the unconditional love Hilda was known for," the statement said. "The family has asked for privacy as they deal with this horrific and painful loss."
Survivors search for pets lost in rubble
Many survivors are also desperate to find their pets who are missing amid the rubble.
The Friends of Miami Animals Foundation announced Tuesday a hotline for residents searching for pets and hopes to create a database of the missing animals.
Two cats – Mia and Coco – are the only animals believed to possibly still be inside the part of Champlain Towers South that is still standing and has been evacuated, according to the Friends of Miami Animal Foundation.
The foundation has had several residents reach out regarding their missing pets, but the only two who were known for sure to be left in the building are Mia and Coco, a representative for the foundation told USA TODAY.
Miami Dade County & Miami Dade Animal Services are aware of the missing pets reported and are prepared to "respond as needed," according to a statement from the foundation.
Local business owners overwhelmed
Surfside business owners were so overwhelmed by last week's tragedy that it took some of them several days to return to work.
Martie Robbins, owner of 7th Plateau jewelry store, lives in Hollywood, Florida. But her shop has had a Surfside presence for 50 years, just blocks from the collapse that has so far claimed 12 lives.
“I couldn’t even come into work until yesterday,” Robbins said Tuesday. “I didn’t want to open the store, I didn’t want to, you know. Like who cares about this versus that tragedy?”
While she may not know them all by name, Robbins can see the faces of her clients in portraits of the missing and the dead.
Abe and Peggy Sreter, owners of The Carrot kosher restaurant, live nearby in Bal Harbour.
Sreter said she has three friends who survived the collapse. But she also knows some of the missing, such as someone she counts as a “customer and friend,” Brad Cohen. The Sreters and Cohen attend the same synagogue, The Shul of Bal Harbour.
Like Robbins, Sreter also stayed away from work for a few days, consumed by grief.
“It affected me mentally for a few days," Sreter said. "I felt like so sad to be here. But then yesterday I said that’s it, you have to come back, you have to attend your business.''
– Maya Lora, the Lakeland Ledger
Contributing: Nate Monroe and Katherine Lewin, The Florida Times-Union; Maya Lora, the Lakeland Ledger; Rebecca Morin, Jennifer Sangalang, John Kennedy and Chelsey Cox, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida condo collapse: Bodies of two children found in rubble