SURFSIDE, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden drew on his own experiences with grief and loss to comfort families affected by the Florida condo collapse, telling them to “never give up hope” even as the search for survivors paused early Thursday, a week after the building came down.
Addressing some of the families touched by the tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms as he offered his prayers and support in the private meeting.
“I just wish there was something I could do to ease the pain,” he said in a video posted on Instagram by Jacqueline Patoka, a woman who was close to a couple and their daughter who are still missing.
It came on a tumultuous day in the search process. Rescue efforts were called off until 4:45 p.m. over safety concerns. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Thursday night they were beginning to plan for the building’s demolition. She said engineers were trying to orchestrate it to minimize the impact on the surrounding area and the search site.
Former Miami-Dade fire chief Dave Downey is leading the International Fire Chiefs Association’s Urban Search and Rescue team. He told NewsNation Prime they would not rest until the job was done.
“We’re going to be here till we recover every last person,” he said. “The goal of the rescuers is to bring closure to these families, we hope that we can bring a survivor.
Few public figures connect as powerfully on grief as Biden, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer. In the first months of his term, he has drawn on that empathy to console those who have lost loved ones, including the more than 600,000 who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a quiet voice freighted with emotion, Biden on Thursday described his own despair at having to wait to find out about how family fared after a crisis like the one experienced in Surfside. He spoke of wanting to switch places with a lost or missing loved one and lamented that “the waiting, the waiting, is unbearable.”
“The people you may have lost — they’re gonna be with you your whole life,” he told the families. “A part of your soul, a part of who you are.”
Biden told the families that it can be “harder to grieve in public than it is in private, so I know there’s an extra burden on you all.”
“But I promise you: I still believe in prayer,” he said. “You’re in my prayers.”
The president, whose remarks were translated into Spanish, urged the families to “never give up hope,” even as the search and rescue operation paused early due to structural concerns with the remaining portion of the building.
Attendees could be seen with tears in their eyes as Biden closed out his remarks, and he and wife, Jill, spent the next few hours visiting privately with the families.
Amid the pause in searching Thursday, Biden, responding to what appeared to be the deadliest calamity of his young presidency, was to survey the devastation and meet with first responders hunting for survivors among the rubble in Surfside.
“This is life and death,” Biden said a briefing about the collapse. “We can do it, just the simple act of everyone doing what needs to be done, makes a difference.”
The president said he believed the federal government has “the power to pick up 100% of the cost” of the search and cleanup and urged the local officials to turn to Washington for assistance.
“You all know it, because a lot of you have been through it as well,” Biden said. “There’s gonna be a lot of pain and anxiety and suffering and even the need for psychological help in the days and months that follow. And so, we’re not going anywhere.”
Biden was briefed on the situation with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Levine Cava. The mayor saluted the efforts to cross party lines in a time of “an unprecedented devastating disaster” and added that the unified government and community response “is what gives us hope.”
DeSantis, a rumored Republican 2024 presidential candidate, said to Biden that the “cooperation has been great,” declaring that the administration has “not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy.”
As Biden pledged federal help, he touched DeSantis’ hand to underscore the point.
Later, the president was expected to meet with first responders who have worked around the clock on a rescue effort that has stretched into its second week amid oppressive heat and humidity and frequent summer storms. He was also expected to meet for several hours with family members of those affected by the collapse before delivering remarks Thursday afternoon.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has been a hallmark of his political career, will reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” while rescue teams search for victims in the rubble of the high-rise. Levine Cava stressed that Biden’s visit had nothing to do with the pause in operations.
The visit comes just one week after Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, suddenly came crashing down, leaving a pancaked rubble.
Search crews going through the ruins found the remains of six people including two children Wednesday, bringing the number of confirmed dead to 18. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble.
Nobody has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverized concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.
Peter Milián is a cousin of Marcus Guara, who died along with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, and their two children, 10-year-old Lucia Guara and 4-year-old Emma Guara. Milián said he understands why the rescue work had to be temporarily halted and is confident search efforts will continue.
“I mean, they’ve done everything they can. But we trust the people that are on the ground. And obviously, they’ve got to do what’s best for their people, right? Because it is a dangerous situation,” he said.
Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said he hopes Biden’s visit will be a morale booster for the entire community.
“We’ve had several challenges from weather, sorrow, pain. And I think that the president coming will bring some unity here for our community, support, like our governor, our mayor, all of us together,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president and first lady also want to make sure that state and local officials have the resources and support they need under an emergency declaration approved by Biden for Miami-Dade. She emphasized that the White House is being careful to coordinate with officials on the ground to ensure that Biden’s visit doesn’t do anything to “pull away” from the ongoing search and rescue effort
State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said he hopes to emphasize to Biden that there is a need for mental health resources to treat rescue workers for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These guys are so blindly focused on the mission of saving lives, and unfortunately they see things they can’t unsee,” Patronis said.
“We want to make sure that when they ultimately do go home, that we’re giving them the strength … to be able to get back to work without fear of nightmares and challenges.”
Since the tragedy, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and Levine Cava, a Democrat, have projected a united and cooperative front as they respond to the crisis.
Previously, they had sometimes sparred over how best to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, with clashes over wearing masks and other measures to control the pandemic. But no signs of partisanship have been evident in Surfside.
DeSantis has spoken appreciatively of the aid coming from Washington, even commending the Biden administration for “stepping up to the plate.”
The cause of the collapse is under investigation. A 2018 engineering report found that the building’s ground-floor pool deck was resting on a concrete slab that had “major structural damage” and needed extensive repairs. The report also found “abundant cracking” of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage.
Just two months before the building came down, the president of its board wrote a letter to residents saying that structural problems identified in the 2018 inspection had “gotten significantly worse” and that major repairs would cost at least $15.5 million. With bids for the work still pending, the building suddenly collapsed last Thursday.
Biden delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts. He has issued an emergency declaration and provided state and local officials with federal assistance to help respond to the collapse.
Thursday’s trip marks the second time since Biden became president that he has paid a visit to the scene of a disaster.
In February, he traveled to Texas after a powerful winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.