With storm looming, demolition planned for collapsed condo; Death toll stands at 24

Southeast

SURFSIDE, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — The search and rescue mission at the collapsed Florida condominium has been suspended as a crew prepares for the demolition of the remainder of the building, a fire official said Saturday.

Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members that rescuers stopped their search at about 4 p.m., when demolition crews began boring holes into the concrete of the still-standing portion of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

The suspension prompted concern from one family member who called it “devastating” that work had to stop.

Jadallah said the work stoppage was a necessary safety measure because the drilling could cause the structure to collapse. If it does, he said, “It’s just going to collapse without warning.”

The death toll is now 24 and 23 next of kin have been notifed. Officials say 121 people are unaccounted for.

Governor Ron DeSantis said Saturday that demolition will begin on the remainder of the collapsed condo building Sunday.

“I’m in support of it. I think it’s the right thing to do,” DeSantis said. “It will be brought down in 36 hours.”

The demolition of the building would temporarily suspend search operations, but officials hope not for long. Some families asked to be able to return to the building to retrieve personal belongings, but will not be allowed to do so.

“This demolition would be one that would protect and preserve evidence and allow the maximum search and rescue to continue,” Levine Cava said.

Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said remnants of the demolished building would be removed immediately after with the intent of giving rescuers access for the first time to parts of the garage area that is a focus of the search. Such access could give officials a clearer picture of the voids that might exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.

An audit prompted by the collapse of Champlain Towers South in nearby Surfside found that the 156-unit Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach, about 5 miles away, had been deemed structurally and electrically unsafe in January, the city said in a news release. Friday afternoon law enforcement authorities cordoned off the area and went door-to-door in the apartment building, telling residents they had to leave the 49-year-old structure.

Harold Dauphin was on his way home from picking up his son at camp Friday when he noticed a helicopter buzzing around his apartment and a heightened police presence. He wondered whether there had been a shooting nearby but then came home to find out that his building was being evacuated.

“They said the building is unsafe to live and it’s an immediate evacuation,” Dauphin said, speaking outside after he’d cleared out. He and his son live on the second floor. He said he hadn’t previously heard anything about the problems that the city mentioned in their news release. He grabbed what he could — clothes, his work uniform and some electronic devices — and the two left.

“It’s unfortunate, but I understand. Knowing what happened in Surfside, you know, it’s understandable,” he said.

It is the first building to be evacuated since municipal officials in South Florida, and statewide, began scrutinizing older high-rises in the wake of the Surfside collapse to ensure that substantial structural problems are not being ignored.

Meanwhile, authorities in Surfside said four more bodies had been found in the rubble, including the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter.

But there was also relief. Closer inspection of the missing persons list reduced the number from 145 to 126 after duplicate names were eliminated and some residents reported missing turned up safe, officials said.

“So this is very, very good news,” Levine Cava said. She said the numbers were expected to keep changing because detectives are continually reviewing the list and verifying reports.

The discovery of the girl’s remains was especially hard on rescuers, Levine Cava said.

“It was truly different and more difficult for our first responders. These men and woman are paying an enormous human toll each and every day, and I ask that all of you please keep them in your thoughts and prayers,” she said at a news conference.

Compounding the hardship, six firefighters from one of Florida’s search and rescue task forces have tested positive for COVID-19, Miami-Dade fire chief Alan Cominsky said. That team has been demobilized and the firefighters isolated.

“Unfortunately this is another challenge, but that’s something that we’ve been dealing with over the past year,″ Cominsky said.

The mayor also said she signed an emergency order to demolish the remaining part of the building once engineers have signed off on it. She said the order was signed now so that the demolition can move quickly once a date is set. It will likely be weeks before the demolition is scheduled, officials said.

No one has been rescued since the first hours after the June 24 collapse. Authorities are also preparing in case Hurricane Elsa — now in the eastern Caribbean — brings strong winds to South Florida. Search efforts have already been stopped briefly several times because of inclement weather.

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“We will try to go as long as we can, but you can see from different periods of inclement weather we’ve had, we have stopped,” Cominsky said.

Officials did not immediately release details about the structural problems that prompted Friday’s evacuation in North Miami Beach, but Crestview Towers had reported millions of dollars in damage from 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

A letter posted less than two weeks ago on the community’s website said some repairs were underway or expected to begin soon on the building, after repeated delays. Plans included installing a new roof, replacing a generator that was over 40 years old, changing the entire building’s lighting system, and more.

“Last year has been a different year due to the pandemic and many things have been postponed for countless reasons, but this year we have started to work hard,” the letter said.

The building’s condo association could not be immediately reached for comment on the delay between Friday’s evacuation and the January recertification report that revealed unsafe conditions.

Darwin Reyes said he lived in the building during Hurricane Irma and a chunk of the balcony above his fell onto his balcony during the storm. He listed multiple other complaints about the building, including elevators that often didn’t work and pipes that didn’t drain well. He said he had been planning to move after living there for five years.

On Friday, Reyes had just woken up from a nap as he prepared for a night shift at a hotel he works at. He checked his Instagram feed and saw that a notice had just been posted that said his building was being evacuated. He looked into the hallway and saw people scurrying back and forth, phones to their ears, with bags and suitcases.

He and his wife packed what they could into multiple suitcases. She went down in the elevator, and he took the stairs from the 9th floor. In the scramble, one of their suitcases went missing, and as darkness fell Friday they were still trying to locate it.

“Right now I’m officially homeless,” he said, adding that he would probably go stay with a relative.”

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