Death toll climbs to 4 in Miami-area condo collapse, with 159 people missing

With nearly 160 people unaccounted for and at least four dead after a seaside condominium tower collapsed into a heap of twisted metal and concrete, rescuers used both heavy equipment and their own hands to comb through the wreckage on Friday in an increasingly desperate search for survivors.

Search and rescue efforts continue; officials fear fatalities could skyrocket

More than 150 unaccounted for at Florida building collapse

1 year ago
Duration 1:29
A huge search and rescue operation is underway in Surfside, Fla., in hopes of finding people still alive after the partial collapse of a condo tower. 'We are listening for sounds,' said Raide Jadallah, the assistant fire chief for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

With nearly 160 people unaccounted for and at least four dead after a seaside condominium tower collapsed into a smouldering heap of twisted metal and concrete, rescuers used both heavy equipment and their own hands to comb through the wreckage on Friday in an increasingly desperate search for survivors.

As scores of firefighters in Surfside, Fla., just north of Miami, toiled to locate and reach anyone still alive in the remains of the 12-storey Champlain Towers South, hopes rested on how quickly crews using dogs and microphones could complete their grim yet delicate task.

"Any time that we hear a sound, we concentrate on those areas," said Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Raide Jadallah.

"It could be just steel twisting, it could be debris raining down, but not specifically sounds of tapping or sounds of a human voice."

Preliminary reports indicate at least four Canadian citizens "may be affected" by the collapse, according to a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson.

Consular officials are in contact with the affected families and local authorities, the spokesperson told CBC News in an email on Friday.

Buffeted by gusty winds and pelted by intermittent rain showers, two heavy cranes began removing debris from the pile using large claws Friday morning, creating a din of crashing glass and metal as they picked up material and dumped it to the side. A smoky haze rose from the site.

Once the machines paused, firefighters wearing protective masks and carrying red buckets climbed atop the pile to remove smaller pieces by hand in hope of finding spots where people might be trapped. 

In a parking garage, rescuers in knee-deep water used power tools to cut into the building from below.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said crews were doing everything possible to save as many people as they could.

"We do not have a resource problem, we have a luck problem," he said.

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden, who spoke with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after the collapse, was receiving updates from Homeland Security.

Officials said they still don't know exactly how many residents or visitors were in the building when it fell, but they were trying to locate 159 people who were considered unaccounted for and might have been there.

Rescue workers work in the rubble in Surfside, Fla., on Friday, following the partial collapse of the 12-storey Champlain Towers South. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

Flowers left in tribute decorated a fence near the tower, and people awaiting news about the search watched from a distance, hands clasped and hugging. Congregants prayed at a nearby synagogue where some members were among the missing.

Three more bodies were removed overnight, and Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said authorities were working with the medical examiner's office to identify the victims. Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.

Rescuers at 'extreme risk'

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said rescuers were at "extreme risk" going through the rubble.

"Debris is falling on them as they do their work. We have structural engineers on site to ensure that they will not be injured, but they are proceeding because they are so motivated and they are taking extraordinary risk on the site every day," she said.

With searchers using saws and jackhammers to look for pockets large enough to hold a person, Levine Cava said there was still reason to have hope.

An earth mover is seen as emergency crews continue search and rescue operations for survivors. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Rachel Spiegel described her mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, who was among the missing, as a loving grandmother known for chauffeuring her two granddaughters everywhere, advocating for Holocaust awareness and enjoying chocolate ice cream every night.

"I'm just praying for a miracle," Spiegel said.

Teenager Jonah Handler was rescued from the rubble hours after the collapse, but his mother, Stacie Fang, died.  A man walking his dog on the beach heard him calling for help through the dust cloud and got help for the boy; dramatic video showed the teen's rescue by firefighters.

Relatives of Handler and Fang issued a statement expressing thanks "for the outpouring of sympathy, compassion and support we have received."

"There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie," it said.

Many people waited at a reunification centre for results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.

Dozens of units affected

While officials said no cause for the collapse has been determined, DeSantis said a "definitive answer" was needed in a timely manner.

Video showed the centre of the building appearing to tumble down first and a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later.

About half of the building's roughly 130 units were affected, and rescuers used cherry pickers and ladders to evacuate at least 35 people from the still-intact areas in the first hours after the collapse.

An aerial view of the building shortly after the disaster early Thursday morning. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Computers, chairs, comforters and other personal belongings were evidence of shattered lives amid the wreckage of the Champlain, which was built in 1981 in Surfside, a small suburb north of Miami Beach. A child-sized bunk bed perched precariously on a top floor, bent but intact and apparently centimetres from falling into the rubble.

'I miss my brother'

Fernando Velasquez said his 66-year-old brother Julio, his sister-in-law Angela and their daughter Theresa, who was visiting from California, were in the building when it fell.

"I miss my brother very much. I talk to him almost every day," said Velasquez, of Elmhurst, N.Y.

WATCH | Dozens missing after condo collapse: 

Dozens unaccounted for after condo collapse near Miami

1 year ago
Duration 1:53
Dozens of people are unaccounted for and at least one person is dead after a 12-storey condo building collapsed in a beachfront community outside Miami.

The missing include people from around the world.

Israeli media said the country's consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, believed that 20 citizens of that country are missing.

Another 22 people were unaccounted for from Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay.

With files from CBC News