Surfside building collapse latest: Death toll rises to 22, including child of firefighter

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — At least 22 people, including three children, have been confirmed dead and 126 others remain unaccounted for since a 12-story residential building partially collapsed in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County last week.

The partial collapse occurred around 1:15 a.m. on June 24 at the Champlain Towers South condominium in the small, beachside town of Surfside, about 6 miles north of Miami Beach. Approximately 55 of the oceanfront complex’s 136 units were destroyed, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raide Jadallah. Since then, hundreds of first responders have been carefully combing through the debris in hopes of finding survivors.

Two more bodies were pulled from the rubble Friday, as crews search the area of the collapse, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a press briefing Friday evening.

Two bodies also were pulled from the rubble on Thursday night, including that of a 7-year-old girl who was the daughter of a Miami firefighter, according to Levine Cava. The firefighter was not part of the crew that discovered the girl’s body but he was notified, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky.

“It goes without saying that every night since this last Wednesday has been immensely difficult,” Levine Cava said during a press briefing in Surfside on Friday morning. “But last night was uniquely different. It was truly different and more difficult for our first responders.”

Meanwhile, 188 people who were living or staying in the condominium at the time of the disaster have been accounted for and are safe, according to Levine Cava, who has stressed that the figures are “very fluid” and “continue to change.” The number of those accounted for has gone up as detectives continue to audit the list of people reported missing, a development that Levine Cava called “very good news.”

However, no survivors have been discovered in the rubble of the building since the morning it partially collapsed, and the hope that more people would be found alive appeared to be fading Friday.

Cominsky said rescue workers are “emotional” after the discovery of a first responder’s own daughter, which “takes a toll.” But he said that won’t stop them from continuing to search for those who are still missing.

“I just was hoping that we would have some survivors,” Cominsky said at the press briefing on Friday morning.

City of Miami Department of Fire Rescue Chief Joseph Zahralban later confirmed in a statement that a member of the team lost his 7-year-old daughter in the disaster.

The massive search and rescue operation, now in its ninth day, was temporarily halted for much of Thursday due to safety concerns regarding the structural integrity of the still-standing section of the building. Movement in the pile of rubble as well as in the remaining structure prompted the hours-long pause, according to Scott Nacheman, a structure specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue support team.

On Friday, Levine Cava signed an emergency order authorizing the demolition of the rest of the condominium “in the interest of public health and safety,” she said.

“Our top priority remains search and rescue, I want to be very clear about that, and we will take no action that will jeopardize our ability to continue the search and rescue mission,” she said. “I want to acknowledge that this was not a decision we made lightly, and I know especially how difficult this is for the families who escaped the building and who have lost their homes and their belongings. The building poses a threat to public health and safety, and bringing it down as is critical to protect our community.”

Nacheman, who is helping develop the plans, told reporters it would be “weeks” before a “definitive timeline” is available. Signing the emergency order will “help us move quickly,” Levine Cava said.

The structure was cleared by crews last week, and all search and rescue resources have since been shifted to focusing on the pile of rubble. But the two sites are side-by-side and the remaining building has posed challenges for the rescuers trying to locate any survivors or human remains in the wreckage.

“Given our ongoing safety concerns about the integrity of the building, we’re continuing to restrict access to the collapse zone,” Levine Cava said during a press briefing in Surfside on Thursday evening.

Shortly after search and rescue efforts resumed Thursday evening, the Miami-Dade County mayor noted that the crews “looked really, really excited to get back out there.”

Levine Cava told reporters on Friday morning that structural engineers are working to expand the search area as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so.

“Here we are, day nine,” she said. “Our first responders have been hard at work, as they have been this entire time, continuing to search through the pile that is accessible to them.”

Heat, humidity, heavy rain, strong winds and lightning storms have also made the conditions difficult for rescuers, periodically forcing them to pause their round-the-clock efforts in recent days. Officials are monitoring weather systems in the region as the Atlantic hurricane season ramps up.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said his office is beginning to prepare a potential state of emergency declaration due to Hurricane Elsa, the first of the Atlantic season, which could possibly hit Surfside. The storm’s track is not yet clear, but DeSantis said tropical force winds could arrive in South Florida as early as Sunday night. So officials are making the necessary preparations to ensure that both the search area and the remaining structure in Surfside is protected.

“This is just what we do but we are adding the special emphasis on this site because we understand the sensitivities involved,” DeSantis said during the press briefing on Friday morning.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Surfside on Thursday to meet with officials, first responders, search and rescue teams, as well as families of the victims. Recalling the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and 1-year-old daughter as well as badly injuring his two sons, the president told reporters: “It’s bad enough to lose somebody but the hard part, the really hard part, is to not know whether they’ll survive or not.”

The cause of the partial collapse to a building that has withstood decades of hurricanes remains unknown and is under investigation.

Built in the 1980s, the Champlain Towers South was up for its 40-year recertification and had been undergoing roof work — with more renovations planned — when it partially collapsed, according to officials.

A structural field survey report from October 2018, which was among hundreds of pages of public documents released by the town of Surfside late Sunday, said the waterproofing below the condominium’s pool deck and entrance drive was failing and causing “major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.”

A slew of lawsuits against the Champlain Towers South Condo Association have already been filed on behalf of survivors and victims, alleging the partial collapse could have been avoided and that the association knew or should have known about the structural damage. A spokesperson for the association told ABC News they cannot comment on pending litigation but that their “focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time.”

The association’s board released a statement Friday saying its surviving members “have concluded that, in the best interest of all concerned parties, an independent Receiver should be appointed to oversee the legal and claims process.”

“We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation,” the statement continued, “and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy.”

In the wake of the Surfside building collapse, the city of North Miami Beach ordered that another condominium close immediately amid safety concerns connected to the 40-year recertification process, officials said.

The Crestview Towers Condominium is “structurally and electrically unsafe,” based on the review of a recertification report submitted Friday, city officials said in a statement.

“The city of North Miami Beach has taken the steps that we recommended to review to make sure that the recertification process was being done in a timely basis. And as I understand it, as a result of that audit, they found a building that had not been recertified, and when the information came in, they took some steps,” Levine Cava said Friday evening.

Some 300 residents have to evacuate, according to ABC Miami affiliate WPLG, while a full structural assessment is conducted.

The 156-unit condo was built in 1972.

ABC News’ Will Gretsky contributed to this report.


Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.