Hopes dim for scores still missing in Florida condo collapse

Search and rescue teams look for survivors at the Champlain Towers South residential condo in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD VIA AP)

SURFSIDE – Rescue crews searched on through the shattered ruins of a collapsed Miami-area condominium tower early on Wednesday, with hopes of finding more survivors fading after nearly a week of probing and digging.

Twelve people have been confirmed killed in the disaster, which could rank as the deadliest accidental structural failure in US history. But 149 others were still missing and believed trapped in the rubble.

"The way I look at it, as an old Navy guy, is that when somebody is missing in the military, you're missing until you're found, and we don't stop the search," Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news briefing.

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would convene a special grand jury, apart from any potential criminal investigation, to examine building safety and "what steps we can take to safeguard our residents" from similar disasters in the future

"Those first-responders are breaking their back, trying to find anybody they can."

But nobody has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverized concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours of the disaster.

Investigators have not concluded what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South condo to crumple as residents slept in the early hours of last Thursday.

But a 2018 engineer's report on the 12-floor, 136-unit complex, prepared ahead of a building safety recertification process, found structural deficiencies that are now the focus of inquiries.

ALSO READ: Death toll climbs to 11 in Florida condo collapse, 150 missing

As recently as April, the condo association's president warned residents in a letter that severe concrete damage identified by the engineer around the base of the building had since grown "significantly worse."

Grand jury inquiry planned

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would convene a special grand jury, apart from any potential criminal investigation, to examine building safety and "what steps we can take to safeguard our residents" from similar disasters in the future.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said search teams had extricated the remains of a 12th victim on Tuesday, leaving 149 people listed as unaccounted for. But she said police detectives were conducting an audit of all the missing-persons reports to "verify and remove duplicates wherever possible".

A day earlier she used dire terms in relating how families of the missing were "coping with the news that they might not have loved ones come out alive and still hoping that they will."

"Their loved ones may come out as body parts," she said.

Florida emergency management director Kevin Guthrie said authorities on Tuesday had asked the federal government to provide an additional urban search-and-rescue team to aid in the effort

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, planned to pay a visit on Thursday to the scene of the tragedy in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach, the White House said.

Few if any signs of life have been detected in the wreckage since last Thursday.

Fire officials have spoken of hearing faint sounds from inside the rubble pile – they acknowledged such noises could come from settling of the ruins – and finding voids deep in the debris large enough to possibly sustain life.

READ MORE: Florida condo building partially collapses, at least 1 dead

But Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said on Tuesday that search-and-rescue personnel faced a daunting task while working in 12-hour shifts in the heat and humidity, hampered by intermittent showers and thunderstorms.

"That building collapsed almost in a footprint of where that building stood – we're talking about 12 stories, with subterranean garages all within that same footprint," Cominsky said.

Florida emergency management director Kevin Guthrie said authorities on Tuesday had asked the federal government to provide an additional urban search-and-rescue team to aid in the effort.

The tragedy has sent agencies in surrounding areas scrambling to check building safety.

Levine Cava said she has directed Miami-Dade County officials to begin a 30-day audit of all residential properties five stories or higher that are 40 years or more old. The cities of Miami and Miami Beach have announced similar measures.

A memorial wall along a fence is seen near the site of the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (CHARLES TRAINOR JR. / MIAMI HERALD VIA AP)

Rescue workers have moved 3 million pounds of concrete piece by piece from the debris, Cominsky said. The teams include experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search.

Debris removed from the rubble pile is being trucked to a collection site to be sifted through by detectives for any bits of evidence that will be cataloged and photographed "for future investigative purposes," Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez said.

A makeshift memorial erected a block from the site held bouquets of fresh hydrangeas tucked into a chain-link fence.

A poster board with hearts had a message for the first responders: "Thank you for looking for my grandmother."

READ MORE: Death toll in Florida condo collapse climbs to 9, with 150 still missing

The tragedy has sent agencies in surrounding areas scrambling to check the safety of buildings.

The 2018 engineer's report warned of "major structural damage" to the concrete slab beneath the pool deck and deterioration, including exposed rebar, in the underground parking garage. The report's author, Frank Morabito, wrote that the deterioration would "expand exponentially" if not repaired.

"It's all starting to come together now, because like I've said all along, there was something very, very wrong at this building," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told CNN when asked about the April warning by the condo association's president. "Buildings in America just don't fall down like this."