99 still unaccounted for in condo collapse near Miami Beach

By Jenny Gross, Patricia Mazzei, William P. Davis, Daniel Politi and Ernesto Londoño

Search teams waged a desperate effort Thursday afternoon to find and rescue survivors still trapped in the rubble of a high-rise condo building that collapsed in the dark of early morning in the oceanfront town of Surfside, Florida, just north of Miami Beach.

“They’re doing everything they can to save lives,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said at a news briefing. “We still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors.”

Officials have accounted for 102 people who lived in the building, but 99 people remained unaccounted for by mid-afternoon, said Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County. Rachel Johnson, a spokesperson for Cava, stressed that the numbers continued to shift as authorities figure out how many people were actually in the building overnight.

At least one person was killed in the collapse that survivors described as being “hit like a missile,” authorities said. With so many people unaccounted for Thursday, many more fatalities were feared.

DeSantis said after touring the wreckage of the 12-story Champlain Towers South that search-and-rescue teams had “made contact” with some people and still hoped to identify survivors caught in the dusty jumble of concrete and steel.

The collapse transformed the picturesque town of Surfside, population 5,600, with its art deco hotels and mid-rise residential buildings, into a dazed scene of disaster and grief. Families flocked to a community center for news about missing loved ones. Survivors recalled being jolted awake about 1:30 a.m. to fire alarms, falling debris and the feeling of the ground trembling.

Rescue teams, some with dogs, picked through an unstable mountain of wreckage Thursday amid concerns about the stability of the remaining part of the condo building. At one point, clouds of dust and smoke swirled through the scene as a fire broke out at the site, according to a Miami-Dade Police spokesperson.

Surveillance video from nearby buildings showed part of the residential tower shearing away in a cloud of dust, but the cause of the collapse was one of many urgent unanswered questions Thursday. It was also unclear exactly how many people — alive or dead — might remain in the rubble.

Commissioner Sally Heyman of Miami-Dade County said Thursday morning that county officials informed her that 51 people who own units in the building had not been accounted for. That did not mean they were missing, she said, just that authorities had not been able to reach them.

She added that not all of the units may have been occupied by full-time residents.

Raysa Rodriguez, 59, who lives in the part of the building that remained standing, said she was awakened by what she thought was an earthquake. She then escaped down an emergency stairwell and off a second-floor balcony onto a rescue ladder.

“I lost a lot of friends,” said Rodriguez, who has owned a unit in the building since 2003. “They are not going to be able to find those people.”

Cava of Miami-Dade County said that about half of the 136 units in the 12-story tower had collapsed.

About 35 people were rescued from the intact part of the building, and two were pulled from the rubble, said Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant fire chief.

Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside told NBC’s “Today” show that dogs had been searching for people trapped under the rubble since 2 a.m.

“Just tragically, there haven’t been any hits from the dogs and that’s a great disappointment,” he said. “Apparently, when the building came down, it pancaked. So there’s just not a lot of voids that they’re finding or seeing from the outside.”

The area has a robust Jewish community and longtime ties to South America from decades past when families kept beach apartments there, and many Jewish and South American residents were reported to be among the missing.

Not far from the collapsed building is a stretch of beloved businesses that include an Argentine bakery, a Venezuelan bakery and a Cuban restaurant. Farther north are the ritzier municipalities of Sunny Isles Beach and Bal Harbour.

The beachside building at 8777 Collins Ave. was built in 1981, according to county property records.

Burkett said it was unclear how stable the rest of the building was. He said 15 families were being relocated to hotels.

“We don’t know if the rest of that building is going to come down,” Burkett said.

He said the scale of the collapse was overwhelming.

“There’s not a lot that little Surfside can do but ring the alarm bell,” Burkett said at a news briefing Thursday afternoon.

Fiorella Terenzi, an associate professor at Florida International University who lives in a neighboring building, Champlain Towers East, said she was woken up by a loud noise.

The sound “was like a big thump all of a sudden,” she said. At first she thought it was thunder but then started to hear sirens. When she left the building, dust was everywhere.

“I could see that half of the building of the Champlain Towers South was collapsed like a sandwich,” said Terenzi, 59, who has lived in the east tower since 2000. “It really was a shocking view.”

Terenzi said she had seen heavy equipment on the roof of the south tower for the past two weeks.

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