Tunnelling rescuers search for survivors in Florida condo collapse

Rescue workers digging feverishly for a fifth day Monday stressed that they could still find survivors in the rubble of a collapsed Florida condo building, a hope family members clung to even though no one has been pulled out alive since the first day the structure fell.

11 people confirmed dead; more than 150 still missing

Search through Florida condo rubble continues

1 year ago
Duration 2:46
Search for survivors continues into Day 5 near Miami where a beachside condo collapsed and left dozens missing.

Rescuers searching for a fifth day for survivors of a Florida condo building collapse used bucket brigades and heavy machinery Monday as they worked atop a precarious mound of pulverized concrete, twisted steel and the remnants of dozens of households.

Authorities said the efforts are still a search-and-rescue operation, but no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse on Thursday. Eleven people have been confirmed dead.

The pancake collapse of the 12-storey building in the community of Surfside, just outside of Miami, left layer upon layer of intertwined debris, frustrating efforts to reach anyone who may have survived in a pocket of space.

"Every time there's an action, there's a reaction," Miami-Dade assistant fire chief Raide Jadallah said during a news conference.

"It's not an issue of we could just attach a couple of cords to a concrete boulder and lift it and call it a day."

Some of the concrete pieces are smaller, the size of basketballs or baseballs.

Underscoring the dangerous nature of the work, he noted that families who rode buses to visit the site on Sunday witnessed a rescuer tumble more than seven metres down the pile. Rescuers and victims must both be considered, he said.

"It's going to take time," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It's a 12-storey building."

Crews work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condominium building on Sunday in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after last Thursday's fatal collapse. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

Relatives continued their visits on Monday. From outside a neighbouring building, more than two dozen family members watched teams of searchers excavate the site. Some held on to each other for support. Others hugged and prayed. Some people took photos.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 150 people remained missing as of Monday afternoon as searchers continued to comb through the ruins. Police have so far identified eight of the victims, including a couple married for nearly 60 years and a mother whose teenage son is one of the few known survivors.

The intense effort includes firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts using radar and sonar devices.

Early Monday, a crane lifted a large slab of concrete from the debris pile, enabling about 30 rescuers in hard hats to move in and carry smaller pieces of debris into red buckets, which are emptied into a larger bin for a crane to remove.

The work has been complicated by intermittent rain showers, but the fires that hampered the initial search have been extinguished.

Jimmy Patronis, Florida's chief financial officer and state fire marshal, said it was the largest deployment of such resources in Florida history that was not due to a hurricane. He said the same number of people were on the ground in Surfside as during Hurricane Michael, a devastating Category 5 hurricane that hit 12 counties in 2018.

"They're working around the clock," Patronis said. "They're working 12 hours at a time, midnight to noon to midnight."

The death toll had risen by just four people Sunday.

Andy Alvarez, a deputy incident commander with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, told ABC's Good Morning America on Monday that rescuers have been able to find some voids inside the wreckage, mostly in the basement and parking garage areas.

WATCH | Desperate search continues: 

Desperate search continues at collapsed Miami-area condo building

1 year ago
Duration 2:59
Nine people are confirmed dead and more than 150 are still unaccounted for after a condo building collapsed outside Miami, while the search for survivors continues and more is learned about the building’s history.

"We have over 80 rescuers at a time that are breaching the walls that collapsed, in a frantic effort to try to rescue those that are still viable and to get to those voids that we typically know exist in these buildings," Alvarez said.

"We have been able to tunnel through the building," Alvarez added, and big cranes have helped rescuers lift "huge pieces of concrete" off the pile. "This is a frantic search to seek that hope, that miracle, to see who we can bring out of this building alive," Alvarez said.

He said rescuers, like the families, are still hoping for good news. "You've gotta have hope and you've gotta have faith," he said.

Others who have seen the wreckage up close were daunted by the task ahead. Alfredo Lopez, who lived with his wife in a sixth-floor corner apartment and narrowly escaped disaster, said he finds it hard to believe anyone is alive in the rubble.

"I just can't see anybody, you know — I hope to God that they're going to find somebody, but man, you know, if you saw what I saw: nothingness and then, you go over there and you see, like, all the rubble. How can somebody survive that?" Lopez told The Associated Press.

Some families had hoped their visit to the site near the 12-storey building would allow them to shout messages to loved ones possibly buried deep inside the pile. As they returned to a nearby hotel, several paused to embrace as they got off the bus. Others walked slowly with arms around each other back to the hotel entrance.

"We are just waiting for answers. That's what we want," said Dianne Ohayon, whose parents, Myriam and Arnie Notkin, were in the building. "It's hard to go through these long days and we haven't gotten any answers yet."

A memorial wall of flowers and photos grows at the intersection of 88th Street and Harding Avenue near the collapsed Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside Monday. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald via The Associated Press)

Deadline for repair payments

The building collapsed just days before a deadline for condo owners to start making steep payments toward more than $9 million US in repairs that had been recommended nearly three years earlier, in a report that warned of "major structural damage."

Authorities on Sunday identified the additional four people whose remains had been recovered as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74; Ana Ortiz, 46; and Luis Bermudez, 26. The number of people unaccounted for was 151, said Levine Cava. The last person to be rescued was found on Thursday, just hours after the collapse.

One organization, Cadena International, was using a suitcase-size device that employs microwave radar to "see" through concrete slabs and pick up heartbeats and other sounds more than 12 metres deep in the rubble. Cadena International is a Miami-based non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to Jewish communities around the world.

As of Monday, the group had not detected any sounds, said Ricardo Aizenman.

"We are still working all the way, and we are hopeful for a miracle," he said.

This aerial image taken Sunday shows rescuers on top of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

The best window for rescue is in the first 72 hours after a disaster, Aizenman said.

After that time, hydration becomes the biggest challenge, he said. He said the on-and-off rain happening since the collapse could actually help as a source of water.

"People can live up to 15, 16 days with only water, drops of water," he said. "There are still chances. We have to keep up the high hopes."

Authorities on Monday insisted they are not losing hope.

"We're going to continue and work ceaselessly to exhaust every possible option in our search," Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Monday.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement he spoke with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell about efforts on the ground after Criswell visited the site. Biden said his administration is prepared to provide assistance and support.

"This is an unimaginably difficult time for the families enduring this tragedy," Biden said. "My heart goes out to every single person suffering during this awful moment."

A memorial outside St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Surfside, near Champlain Towers South, set up in memory of people still missing or dead after the collapse of the building last Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)