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Death toll in Florida condo collapse climbs to 9, with 150 still missing

Surfside – The official death toll from the partial collapse of a high-rise condominium complex near Miami rose to nine on Sunday, with more than 150 people still missing, as rescue teams picked through the rubble for a fourth day without finding further signs of life, Reuters reported.

What caused nearly half the 12-storey building to cave in on itself in the wee hours of Thursday as residents slept has yet to be determined, but a 2018 engineer’s inspection report found major structural deterioration in the parking garage beneath the 40-year-old tower.

Officials in Surfside, the shore town near Miami where the building stood along the beach, said hope remained that rescuers would yet discover survivors in air pockets that may have formed in the pancaked debris.

Even so, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said on Sunday crews had yet to find such voids in the rubble, or any signs of life.

“It’s an extremely difficult situation,” Cominsky said. “Our rescue teams are nonstop, doing all that we can, searching every area, every bit of hope, to see if we can find a live victim.”

Two large cranes and two backhoes on Sunday joined in the debris-removal efforts that had previously been conducted essentially by hand by teams also using rescue dogs, sonar, drones and infrared scanners as they gingerly tunneled through the ruins.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said six to eight squads of rescuers were working on the multi-story pile of shattered concrete and twisted metal laying next to the portion of the Champlain Towers South condo that remained standing.

“Hundreds of team members are on standby to rotate as we need a fresh start,” Levine Cava said at a briefing in which she announced the death toll had risen to nine. Officials put the number of people still unaccounted for at more than 150.

The teams included experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search. An American flag atop one crane rippled in the stiff ocean breeze. Visitors had placed flowers alongside a plastic barrier on the beach that kept onlookers at bay.

Fire abates

A smouldering fire beneath the rubble that hindered the work of rescuers had abated by Sunday morning, officials said. The mayor said a trench was burrowed through the rubble to separate the areas of smoking debris from the rest of the wreckage. Weekend thunderstorms also hampered search efforts.

Some families of those missing have provided DNA samples to officials while others recounted narrow escapes. Police released the names of four victims who ranged in age from 54 to 83. They were a couple married for 58 years, a volunteer Little League baseball coach and the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble shortly after the collapse.

Only remains have been recovered since the early hours of the disaster.

One surviving resident, Erick de Moura, marveled afterward at his luck at having spent the night at his girlfriend’s home less than 2 miles (3 km) away in Miami Beach the night of the collapse, likely saving his life.

“Only by God. To me this is a miracle,” the 40-year-old Brazil native told Reuters.

Photographs of the missing were posted on a nearby fence, along with flowers and messages. “The Lord is My Refuge” read one handmade sign. “Surfside God is with you” said another.

Some residents remain in Champlain Towers North, a sister building where only a voluntary evacuation order has been issued. An inspector did not find any immediately obvious problems with the north tower.

“Having said that, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable staying in that building,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said, until a comprehensive review was completed.

Officials said on Saturday that Miami-Dade County would audit all buildings more than 40 years old within the next 30 days to ensure their safety.

Surfside officials have released documents including the engineer’s report from 2018, which cited major structural damage beneath the building’s pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage.

The report was produced for the Champlain Towers South condominium board in preparation for a major repair project set for this year.

Gregg Schlesinger, a lawyer and former general contractor who specializes in construction-failure cases, said it was clear that the deficiencies identified in the 2018 report were the main cause of the disaster.

Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association, said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower with their families.

The report estimated it would cost US$9.1 million (RM38 million) to make the recommended repairs. Work had started on replacing the roof, but the pandemic slowed the project, she said.

Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking 1 to 3 millimeters per year, while surrounding buildings were stable, according to Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.

Schlesinger said investigations and the inevitable lawsuits would eventually reveal the cause of the collapse.

“But we do know one thing: there was a structural failure,” he said. “We know another thing: The structural failure should not have occurred.”

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