The death toll in the Florida condominium collapse has risen to 18, with 145 people still unaccounted for, as search and rescue crews were made to halt their work sifting through the rubble and debris in the eighth day of an intense rescue operation due to concerns that the rest of the building could fall, authorities said.
Early Thursday Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said they were forced to pause rescue operations at the site due to concerns about the stability of the section still standing, CNN reported.
She said that local and state engineers are monitoring the building for possible next steps. And, families have been notified of the pause in operations.
On Wednesday, rescuers found the bodies of two young children. The children were ages 4 and 10, the mayor said, CBS News reported.
The discovery of the children’s remains came after four other victims’ bodies were found Wednesday night, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said, according to the Associated Press. Those victims’ next of kin had not yet been identified. In addition to those four bodies, crews also found other human remains Tuesday, Jadallah said.
It was the highest one-day toll since the building collapsed one week ago, according to reports.
On Wednesday, Jadallah told family members of those missing that a ramp built onto the pile overnight allowed rescuers to use a crane on sections that were not previously accessible, the Associated Press reported.
“We hope to start seeing some significant improvement in regards to the possibility of (finding) any voids that we cannot see,” Jadallah said.
What remains of the building was evacuated and cleared by rescue crews last week.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters Tuesday that the focus still has been on locating survivors. When asked how long a person could survive in such conditions, he said, “There didn’t seem to be a good answer to that.”
“Nobody is giving up hope here. Nobody is stopping,” Burkett said during the press conference Tuesday. “We are dedicated to getting everyone out of that pile of rubble.”
President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden are scheduled to visit the site on Thursday, but it is unclear if they will go to where the collapse happened. “I want to stress that President Biden’s presence today will have no impact on what happens at this site,” Cava said, according to CNN.
As of Tuesday, more than 3 million pounds of concrete had been moved from the pile, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said, ABC News reported.
According to ABC, Jadallah said crews have not yet been able to reach the bottom of the wreckage, but cameras have been able to provide clarity on where voids and air pockets, where people could potentially be trapped, are located.
Colonel Elad Edri, who is with an Israeli team assisting in the search, said, “we believe the chances are low,” but also said, “we do believe that we can find lives and we hope to get it,” according to CBS News.
On Sunday, families rode buses to a nearby site to see crews, including firefighters, sniffer dogs, and search experts, using radar and sonar devices in the area where the 12-story high-rise building once stood before a portion of it came crashing down at 1:30 a.m. Thursday, as many of its residents were sleeping.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a Sunday night press conference that family members were able to visit the site privately.
“This was something many of the family members requested and our teams worked to accommodate them,” she said. “I think it turned out very well and they were very grateful for the opportunity.”
On Sunday, authorities identified the remains of four people who were recovered as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Christina Beatriz Elvira Oliwkowicz, 74; and Ana Ortiz, 46, and her son Luis Bermudez, 26, the Associated Press reported.
They were four of the 18 people confirmed as of Wednesday to have died in the collapse.
Cava stressed that the numbers reported at this point are fluid and subject to change based on new information they get. “It is very important to keep in mind that these numbers are not final,” Cava said.
“It is very critical that if you are missing a loved one that you report it to us,” Cava said. “We are taking DNA swabs from everybody from that location so if relatives come we will take DNA swabs. It will be critically important for our identification.”
Cava praised the bravery and selflessness of the rescue crews who had been working rotating 12-hour shifts. “These people live to save lives. It is an inspiration to all of us and to people all around the world,” Cava said.
“We ask you to continue to pray for all of the families during this impossibly difficult time as they are waiting for news and to continue to pray for our first responders who continue to toil to find loved ones.”
Overwhelmed by the generous support from all over the country and the globe, the mayor said the SupportSurfside.org fundraised, as of Wednesday, more than $2 million. The Miami Foundation wrote on Twitter that there have been more than 9,500 donors with financial support distributed to more than 62 individuals at the center of the crisis.
Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz also spoke at the press conference. She referred to the devastation of the South Champlain Towers South as an “unprecedented crisis and tragedy and one that is incomparable anywhere in the U.S. before now,” and said that “we have to hold onto hope.”
In a tragedy or disaster situation, Schultz said, the normal procedure is to register the person’s name on a website or through an 800-number but in this situation, all registrations are being done face-to-face, a decision, she said, which was made early on.
“This crisis happened to people just living the normalcy of their lives,” Shultz said. “The gut of this community was cut out in an instant so recognizing and making sure we keep the humanity threaded through the process is critical.”
At the press briefing, Burkett also commended the rescue crews on the ground working tirelessly to bring the families some closure.
“Today, I started my day visiting the families and ended my day visiting with the families and learned a lot,” Burkett said. “What I learned that there was a source of optimism injected into the conversation. The Israeli search and rescue teams were in the meeting and the families were encouraged I could see it on their faces,” Burkett said.
Burkett said search and rescue teams from Mexico were also joining the operation and added, “like I’ve said all along, we don’t have a resource problem; we’ve only had a luck problem.”
“Our luck with respect to weather and fires seemed to turn now and we just need a few miracles each day and start pulling people out of the rubble and reuniting them with their families.”
Miami-Dade Commissioner Vice Chairman Oliver G. Gilbert said he and many of his constituents went to the beach with a group of clergy to hold hands and pray.
“God doesn’t have a gender or race or color he doesn’t know city counties countries. God is love. We can petition god right now in this place,” Gilbert said. “We look at things and define ourselves by differences but when tragedy confronts us we are best defined by how we come together and so that is what you see right now.”
During his tour of the site with the fire marshal, he said he saw humanity first hand.
“For the men and women out there putting their lives at risk and doing it for the families who need closure,” he said. “It is a calling and it is a duty.”
Early Monday, a crane lifted large slabs of concrete from the debris pile as dozens of rescuers using red buckets tediously removed smaller pieces of debris they found that were emptied into a large bin for the crane to remove, the Associated Press reported.
Some of the residents who did make it out were still in disbelief and recalled the harrowing scenes of the walls cracking and deafening noise that jolted them from their sleep.
Raysa Rodriguez ran out of the building in time and left a message on her brother’s phone, CBS reported.
“Anybody over there? Hello?” she said. “Oh my God! What the hell? The whole entire building is gone!”