‘Heartbreaking’: Death toll in Florida condo collapse now 79

Southeast
Rescuers walk away from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South collapse, during a shift change, in Surfside, Fla. on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Rescue workers now focused on finding remains instead of survivors in the rubble of the Florida condominium collapse vowed to keep up their search for victims until they cleared all the debris at the site. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)

Rescuers walk away from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South collapse, during a shift change, in Surfside, Fla. on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Rescue workers now focused on finding remains instead of survivors in the rubble of the Florida condominium collapse vowed to keep up their search for victims until they cleared all the debris at the site. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — The death toll in the collapse of a Miami-area condo building rose to 79 on Friday, a number the mayor called “heartbreaking” and “staggering” as recovery workers toiled for a 16th day to find victims in the rubble. Another 61 people remain unaccounted for.

No one has been found alive since the first hours after building fell on June 24.

Levine Cava said the work to recover victims was still continuing with all urgency.

“This is a staggering and heart breaking number that affects all of us very deeply,” she said of the new death toll.

As the search continued, a Paraguayan official disclosed late Thursday that rescuers had found in the rubble the bodies of Sophia López Moreira, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady Silvana Abdo, and López Moreira’s husband Luis Pettengill and the youngest of their three children.

That South American nation’s foreign minister, Euclides Acevedo, told Paraguay’s ABC Cardinal radio station that the two other children and the family assistant are still missing.

“We ask people for their solidarity and a prayer,” he said. “In the face of a tragedy, Paraguayan people must show their traditional solidarity.”

Levine Cava said teams paused briefly atop the pile to mark the two-week anniversary of the disaster, but there was no let-up in the pace or number of rescuers at the site.

“The work continues with all speed and urgency,” she said. “We are working around the clock to recover victims and to bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can.”

The painstaking search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort at midnight Wednesday after authorities said they had come to the agonizing conclusion that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside.

“When that happened, it took a little piece of the hearts of this community,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose congressional district includes Surfside.

Michael Stratton, whose wife, Cassie, has not officially been confirmed dead, said friends and family had accepted “the loss of a bright and kind soul with an adventurous spirit.” He was talking on the phone with his wife right when the building collapsed, and she described shaking before the phone went dead, he has told NewsNation affiliate KDVR-TV.

“This wasn’t the miracle we prayed for, but it was not for lack of trying by rescue crews whose tireless bravery will never be forgotten,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Wasserman Schultz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged financial assistance to families of the victims, as well as to residents of the building who survived but lost all their possessions.

In addition to property tax relief for residents of the building, DeSantis said, the state government will work toward channeling an outpouring of charitable donations to families affected by the collapse. Levine Cava said crews were also collecting and cataloging numerous personal items, including legal documents, photo albums, jewelry, and electronic goods that they would seek to reunite families with.

The Rev. Juan Sosa of St. Joseph Catholic Church met with other spiritual leaders at the collapse site, where heavy machinery worked in the rubble and mourners left flowers and photos. He said faith leaders hope to bring peace to grieving families.

“I’m hoping that they have some closure as we continue to pray for them,” he said.

The change from search and rescue to recovery was somber. Hours before the transition Wednesday, rescue workers stood at solemn attention, and clergy members hugged local officials, many of them sobbing.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said Wednesday he expects the recovery effort will take several more weeks. He added crews are now using heavier equipment, expediting the removal of debris.

“We are expecting the progress to move at a faster pace,” he added.

Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building, allowing access to new areas of debris.

Some voids where survivors could have been trapped did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no one was found alive. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims.

Meanwhile, authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse. And at least six lawsuits have been filed by families.

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