Surfside death toll at 64, as authorities pledge recovery continues ‘with urgency’

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Two weeks after the building collapse in Surfside, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 64 bodies have been recovered from the rubble, as authorities pledged on their first official day of search and recovery to find every single victim.

The work continues with all speed and all urgency,” Levine Cava said at a morning press briefing Thursday. As of Thursday evening, 76 people remained potentially missing following the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo, she said.

For the second time since the June 24 collapse, families were allowed to visit the collapse site Thursday afternoon, where first responders held a moment of silence, Levine Cava said. Miami-Dade Police performed an aerial salute in honor of the victims. Overnight, around 1:20 a.m. Thursday, responders had paused their work briefly to honor the victims and mark two full weeks since the early-morning collapse.

Although authorities have determined there is no chance of survival in the rubble, some loved ones of those still unaccounted for in the collapse said they are holding out hope that a miracle will happen.

“Miracles do happen,” Levine Cava later told the Miami Herald. “This particular collapse, we’ve all learned, is unique in how difficult it is to find those spaces where people might survive. It’s important to make decisions in a way that helps people to cope with this evolving situation.”

She said finding someone alive in the rubble “seems really outside of the realm of any human possibility,” but that rescue crews will continue searching just as quickly and thoroughly as they have for the past two weeks. Aiding their efforts now, however, are dogs that look for the dead — not the living. Following the demolition of what remained of the Champlain Towers South on Sunday, rescue crews searching in areas that were previously inaccessible have found “an accelerating number of people — all who had perished,” she said.

“We knew always that there would be a point at which we’d switch from rescue to recovery,” she said. “Of course we hoped at the outset that there’d be lots of people who were somehow miraculously in spaces where they could survive.”

Levine Cava said search crews will continue looking for personal items during the recovery process, including legal documents, photo albums, wallets, jewelry, school graduation documents, religious items, phones and more.

Particular care is being taken to ensure proper Jewish burial rituals are observed and rabbis are present on site to perform ritual prayer over recovered Jewish bodies, she said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said he did not know exactly how many floors rescue crews have tunneled through or how long the operation may take. He said heavier machinery is being used on the rubble pile and that authorities are “expecting the progress to move at a faster pace with our recovery efforts.”

Levine Cava said a “bucket brigade” has been brought in to help search-and-rescue teams remove rubble from the site and that search efforts may be able to move more quickly as more is known about where victims are more likely to be.

“I think as we delayer, we have a better sense of where people are more likely to be so maybe we can go a little faster through those areas where we don’t expect to find bodies, but of course if we do find a body, everything stops to be able to recover the body,” she told the Herald.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said some families have expressed concern that victim identification has stalled throughout the recovery transition, but he said he has assured them identifications are happening around the clock. And so homicide detectives and other first responders can avoid burnout, officials said, they are being rotated out and replaced with crime scene personnel from other local municipalities.

Burkett said a fire department official told families Thursday that they would not stop searching until they reached the bottom of the pile.

The speaker further said, ‘I can assure you we are not stopping and your missing children are coming back to your family,’ ” Burkett said.

Levine Cava said at the press conference that a team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency investigating the collapse, has tagged 182 specimens of debris that will serve as evidence from the collapsed portion of the building and 32 other portions from the demolished part of building.

The town of Surfside is also investigating what caused the collapse. On Thursday, Mayor Burkett sent a letter to building owners with recommendations from a town consultant that include hiring geotechnical and design structural engineers to inspect a building’s foundation and the concrete slabs in the basement level of the building.

“The recommendations are made in an abundance of caution based on the current status of the investigation,” Burkett wrote. “They are intended to serve as an interim methodology to afford residents some peace of mind until the forensic investigation progresses further.”

Charity group acknowledging victims on memorial wall

The morning after officials announced the mission at the site of the partial building collapse in Surfside had shifted from search and rescue to recovery, candles lined the ground before the makeshift memorial wall, some of them still burning from the night before.

New additions were 34 white poles on the sidewalk before the wall, each with a blue heart and bearing the name of a confirmed victim of the collapse. Lutheran Church Charities volunteers arrived at the wall with the markers Wednesday afternoon, and again Thursday morning, attaching black Sharpies to each one so community members can pass along messages to the victims’ families.

“It can be friends of the family, or it can be just someone in the community who has been highly affected by the condo collapse,” said Bonnie Fear, the national Lutheran group’s K-9 crisis response coordinator invited to Surfside by the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in North Miami. “They can write an expression perhaps to release the pain, anxiety, suffering they’re feeling, even if they don’t know the person.”

The markers bore inscriptions in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Portuguese. Some passersby had drawn small broken hearts and signed their names. Others left unsigned messages like, “I love you” and “May God be with you during these sad days,” an unsigned inscription on the marker for Tzvi Ainsworth, one of the identified victims.

The Lutheran group has as many as 160 markers ready to be used, Fear said, and plans to continue bringing them to the wall as the death toll climbs.

Delray Beach Firefighter Cecilia Abaldo pets Tobias, a comfort dog from the Lutheran Church Charities, as she finishes her shift working in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South collapse on Thursday, July 8, 2021. The focus has shifted to search and recovery at the site in Surfside.
Delray Beach Firefighter Cecilia Abaldo pets Tobias, a comfort dog from the Lutheran Church Charities, as she finishes her shift working in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South collapse on Thursday, July 8, 2021. The focus has shifted to search and recovery at the site in Surfside.

Before the Surfside collapse, the group has performed similar services primarily at sites of mass shootings: in Orlando after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Parkland after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Las Vegas after the concert shooting, and most recently in Boulder, Colorado, for the victims of a mass shooting at a grocery store.

Along with the markers, the group brought nine golden retrievers trained as “comfort dogs,” each dressed in vests that read “Please Pet Me.”

“They are our bridge to connect to people who are hurting or grieving,” Fear said. “They pet them, they hug them, they cry with them, they laugh with them. By the time we’re done, a lot of times, they say, this is the best part of my day.”