Condo rescuers try to prepare families for grim news

By Andrés R. Martínez, Christina Morales and Eduardo Medina

The chances of finding survivors among the wreckage of the collapsed condo near Miami dropped as the rescue operation for more than 150 people entered its fifth day Monday and rescuers navigated massive piles of debris to avoid making the conditions worse at the site.

While officials are still holding out hope that there might be more survivors, rescuers have begun trying to prepare relatives of the missing for the likelihood that their loved ones will not be found. No survivors have been pulled from the wreckage of the Champlain South Towers in Surfside, Florida, since Thursday, the day that half of the 13-story building collapsed.

Officials on Monday said another body had been recovered from the rubble, bringing the known death toll to 10.

More than 300 emergency personnel, including teams from Israel and Mexico, are working around the clock, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been called in.

“The search-and-rescue operation continues,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said Monday. “Right now, our top priority is search and rescue.”

In an interview with “Good Morning America” on Monday, Chief Andy Alvarez of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue offered one note of hope, saying his teams had “found voids within the building” that they had been able to penetrate by digging through the basement of the building.

On Saturday, the teams began digging a massive trench, more than 125 feet long and four stories deep, to aid in finding the missing residents. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said rescuers needed to get lucky after days of fires at the site and flooding that had slowed their efforts.

Experts have cautioned that rescuers need to move slowly and deliberately because they do not want to make the site more dangerous for them or the missing people. Illustrating the risk, Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant chief, said one member of the rescue team had “tumbled 25 feet down the mound” while working at the site on Sunday.

While officials held out hope they might still find survivors, that likelihood diminishes each day, and rescuers stopped hearing noises that could indicate the presence of survivors days ago.

Clearing the site and identifying remains, though, may take months, based on similar efforts at collapsed buildings, according to experts.

Relatives of the missing were taken on buses to the site Sunday afternoon.

They boarded in front of the Grand Beach Hotel, which has served as a headquarters for those awaiting news of the missing.

The buses were escorted by the police, and, as they arrived, acrid smoke lingered from fires beneath the rubble where search teams have been working since early Thursday. The relatives saw a crane lifting heavy chunks of the building and removing debris onto dump trunks.

While Floridians and viewers around the world were stunned by the suddenness of the collapse, there were warnings as early as 2018 of “major structural damage” that needed to be addressed, according to emails between a contractor and the condo’s board. In those emails, which the city of Surfside has begun releasing, the engineer urged the board to repair cracked columns and crumbling concrete and estimated it would cost about $9 million.

As of the collapse Thursday, that work had not been done. But the board had taken out a loan of about $12 million to do the work.

Over the weekend, as officials tried to project publicly that they had not given up on finding survivors, rescuers privately updating relatives of the missing at a hotel reunification center tried to brace them for the worst.

“Just bear with me what I’m about to say,” Jadallah said during a Saturday briefing that was captured in videos posted on social media. “It’s going to sink in. I understand it’s very emotional. It’s not necessarily that we’re finding victims. We’re finding human remains.”

Family members in the room could be heard sobbing, moaning and sniffling throughout the briefing as rescuers explained the details of the search and where human remains had been found.

“This is what’s been frustrating a lot of rescuers,” Jadallah said. “As the building came down — the pancake collapse — what we’re recognizing is that we’re having a hard time finding some of the bodies that are still intact. Now what we’re finding, again, is human remains.”

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