Body found in rubble after Florida building collapse as death toll rises to 5; 156 unaccounted for


SURFSIDE, Fla. – Responders found a body and human remains Saturday in the rubble at the site of a 12-story beachfront condominium building that collapsed just north of Miami early Thursday morning, killing at least five people and leaving 156 more unaccounted for.

“Today, our search and rescue teams found another body in the rubble, and as well our search has revealed some human remains,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in a press conference late Saturday.

Three bodies previously uncovered in the rubble were identified, and next of kin has been notified, Levine Cava said. She did not release the names of the people who have been identified.

Officials have accounted for 130 people, she said.

“Our top priority continues to be search and rescue, and saving as many lives that we can,” Levine Cava said.

The process of identifying the victims will be “very difficult,” she said. Officials were relying on DNA testing and have already taken samples from family members, she said.

Family members have asked for an opportunity to spend time and pray near the site, and officials were “working to accommodate them,” Levine Cava said.

State Department representatives were on-site, Sen. Marco Rubio said at the press conference, calling the situation a “highly complex disaster” involving a “substantial number” of foreign nationals and families of foreign nationals. All victims affected by the tragedy would be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, he said.

“This has truly shown us how interconnected we are as a world, as a global community,” Levine Cava said. She added, “Thank you so much to the entire world for stepping up and holding us in the palm of your hands.”

Levine Cava said support funds have received more than $750,000.

“We don’t have a resource problem here. We have a luck problem,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said firefighters were able to contain a fire that burned beneath the debris and hampered rescue efforts early Saturday, later searching the area with canines and sonar.

A wing of the residential building in Surfside, Florida, came down with a roar at about 1:30 a.m. Thursday. Video footage captured from nearby showed the center of the building appearing to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.

The building, Champlain Towers South, was built in 1981 and was up for its required 40-year inspection before its collapse. Levine Cava said Saturday she was directing the county’s Department of Economic and Regulatory Resources to immediately begin an audit of all buildings at the 40-year mark and beyond, to be completed within 30 days.

“We want to make sure every building has completed its certification process and move swiftly to remediate any issues that have been identified in that audit,” she said.

It remains unclear why the building collapsed. Researchers and engineers pointed to a variety of possibilities, including sea-level rise, the corrosive effect of saltwater, the stability of the ground underneath, shoddy construction or lax oversight.

Late Friday, the town of Surfside posted several documents to its website related to the collapsed building. None appeared to contain details that would explain the beachside building’s collapse but did reveal multiple, potentially serious, issues.

Jay Miller, a retired college professor from Philadelphia who moved to the building three years ago, said Saturday residents knew about an October 2018 report warning of “major structural damage” and ultimately voted to make fixes — though reaching that agreement took time.

Burkett said the town of Surfside was aware of the 2018 report but he only became aware of the report Saturday. A Surfside official visited both Champlain Towers North and Champlain Towers East on Saturday for a “cursory review” of the structures and didn’t find anything “that was out of order,” Burkett said.

Residents living in Champlain Towers North would be given the opportunity to relocate but would not be required to leave, he said. FEMA was available to assist residents who wished to temporarily relocate while the buildings undergo a more thorough review.

Here’s what we know Saturday:

Families, friends adorn makeshift memorial

Tearful families and sentimental residents dorned a makeshift memorial Saturday with flowers, candles, photos, trinkets and notes for loved ones. Relatives of the missing embraced each other as and prayed, and some reached out and touched the faces on the photos they had just pinned.

Others caught the most direct view they could of the crumbled building, watching crews methodically sift through rubble searching for survivors. In obvious distress, onlookers expressed frustration with the slow speed of rescue efforts but declined to comment further.

The sight of the collapsed condo complex devastated Adriana LaFont, who said her ex-husband Manuel LaFont, 54, was asleep when the building fell. To the 42-year-old woman, it resembled a war zone.

“When I saw it, I almost died,” Adriana LaFont said in Spanish. “It felt like those walls fell on me, too.”

LaFont, who shares two children with her ex-husband, said she holds out hope he will be pulled from the rubble. “I’m very Catholic,” she said. “Manny was very Catholic. The last thing I’m going to lose is hope that he’s OK.”

Gladys Perez, who lives one block away from the collapsed building, said she woke Thursday morning to flashing lights, disoriented. She saw crews pulling people out through their balconies, she said.

“Today is the third day, and I think a lot of the families are feeling desperate,” Perez said in Spanish. “I understand how they feel. When someone is frustrated, time feels very long, but I think the crews are doing the best they can. They are out there risking their lives too.”

Viviana Eskenaci walked tearfully down the road with her daughter and dog Saturday morning. She said she and her husband lived at Champlain Towers for six years and sold their condo in 2010 to a woman who is still missing. Eskenaci said she is worried about her and many other friends and acquaintances still living in the building.

“We built friendships there, and now I see all the pictures of people that we knew,” Eskenaci said. “Everybody that we knew is missing.”

Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins, the area’s NFL team that plays home games about 12 miles northwest of Surfside, was working with its Dolphins Food Relief Program partner Seed Miami Food Truck to provide meals to families and first responders.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families as they deal with this sudden and tragic loss. We also appreciate our first responders and volunteers that have worked tirelessly today to lead rescue and relief efforts,” the team said in a statement.

– Jesse Mendoza, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Victoria Villanueva-Marquez, The Palm Beach Post

First victim identified as Stacie Fang

On Friday, relatives issued a statement identifying one of the deceased as Stacie Fang. Fang, 54, died at a hospital from blunt force injuries, the medical examiner’s office told NPR.

Her son, Jonah Handler, was rescued from the rubble hours after the collapse. The teen boy — who according to Miami’s WSVN is a sophomore, junior-varsity baseball player at a local high school — was rescued by Nicholas Balboa, who was walking his dog near the buildings around midnight when he heard the ground shake, followed by a loud crash. He approached the piles of concrete and metal and heard a scream.

Balboa said he spotted fingers popping out through the broken concrete and heard a boy’s voice say, “Can somebody see me?” Balboa said he climbed over rubble to reach the boy, later identified as Handler. “He was just saying, ‘Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.’ I told him: ‘We’re not gonna go anywhere. We’ll be here,'” Balboa said. Read more here.

— Gabriela Miranda and Rachel Aretakis, USA TODAY

Condo’s inspection reports detail ‘concrete deterioration’

The documents that Surfside town officials posted online Friday date to 2018, with engineers noting design flaws and failing waterproofing that warned of “exponential damage” about 990 days before much of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex collapsed.

The reports, from few pages to several hundred pages long, range from detailed plans to permits for concrete repair to a courtesy notice reminding residents to turn off exterior lights so baby turtles wouldn’t be confused when they hatched and not make it to the safety of the ocean.

An inspection report from Oct. 8, 2018, found “abundant” cracking and spalling of the columns, beams and walls in the garage under the tower that fell to the ground. Spalling refers to the deterioration of concrete, sometime causing flaking and the exposure of reinforcing steel bars known as rebar.

“Abundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees were observed in the concrete columns, beams and walls” of the ground floor parking garage, according to a structural field survey report by Maryland-based Morabito Consultants.

It appears plans to correct these problems were not solidified until April of this year, despite the original report having been issued in October 2018. “Though some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion,” the report noted.

Jay Miller, the resident, said inhabitants first discussed the report in 2018 and the high price tag led to turmoil on the condo association’s board. A new board eventually took over — “extremely dedicated and conscientious people,” Miller said — but they’d lost about a year in dealing with the damage.

— Elizabeth Weise, Kyle Bagenstose and Sudiksha Kochi, USA TODAY

Multiple factors could have contributed, experts say

Researchers and engineers are trying to figure out what caused the building’s early morning collapse and what that might mean for other aging high-rises along the Florida coast and the rest of the country.

For now, there are no clear answers. USA TODAY spoke Friday with more than a dozen experts without finding a consensus. Some pointed to sea-level rise and the corrosive effect of saltwater brought with encroaching tides. Others wondered about the stability of the ground beneath or more mundane matters like shoddy construction or lax oversight.

On this point experts did all agree: It will take a long time to discern exactly how and why Champlain Tower South collapsed and once the answers are known, they’re likely to prompt changes to the building industry.

“The whole regulatory apparatus is behind the times, relative to current risks,” said Clinton Andrews, a professor of urban planning and director of the Center for Green Building at Rutgers University. “I think the case in Florida illustrates that problem.” Read more here.

— Kyle Bagenstose, Elizabeth Weise, Erin Mansfield, Aleszu Bajak, USA TODAY

Rescue efforts have galvanized area’s Jewish community

South Florida’s tight-knit Jewish community has been both devastated and mobilized by the tragedy.

At least 35 of the people still unaccounted for are Jewish, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, consul general of Israel in Miami, told USA TODAY Saturday. In the aftermath, multiple synagogues, individuals and community partners have responded in an outpouring of financial, logistical and spiritual support.

On WhatsApp, prayer groups read psalms and posted photos of the missing, while members of Skylake Synagogue, about 20 minutes from Surfside in North Miami Beach, collected clothing, blankets and essentials for families awaiting news.

Hatzalah, a rescue team of Orthodox Jews, has been on the scene since Thursday.

“When darkness and tragedy fall upon us, it’s our duty as a community to come together,” said Rabbi Leib Ezagui of the Jewish Community Synagogue in North Palm Beach. “It doesn’t make sense, and we may never be able to wrap our heads around it. But one thing we can be certain of is that by doing good deeds and lending a helping hand in whatever way we can, we are planting a seed that can forever be nurtured.”

Many of the missing have roots around the world. Nine Argentinian nationals, six Colombian nationals and six Paraguayan nationals were unaccounted for Thursday, and three Uruguayans were affected, according to country officials. The missing Paraguayans included the family of Paraguay’s first lady. Read more about the missing, including a list of names, here.

Contributing: Associated Press; Ryan Miller and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; John Bisognano, The Palm Beach Post.

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