Search of collapsed Florida condo now a recovery effort, officials say
Death toll climbs to 54 on Wednesday, with dozens of people still unaccounted for
Emergency workers gave up Wednesday on any hope of finding survivors in the collapsed Surfside, Fla., condo building, telling sobbing families that there was "no chance of life" in the rubble as crews shifted their efforts to recovering more remains.
The announcement followed increasingly sombre reports from emergency officials, who said they sought to prepare families for the worst.
"At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search-and-rescue mission," Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference.
"We have all asked God for a miracle, so the decision to transition from rescue to recovery is an extremely difficult one," she said.
Eight more bodies were recovered Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 54, the mayor said. Thirty-three of the dead have been identified, and 86 people are still unaccounted for.
Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told families at a private briefing that crews would stop using rescue dogs and listening devices but would continue to search for their loved ones.
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"Our sole responsibility at this point is to bring closure," he said, as relatives cried in the background.
Unlike some collapses that create W-shaped spaces where people can survive, a "pancake collapse" like the one in Surfside tends not to leave livable spaces, Jadallah said.
'"Where a pancake collapses, unfortunately it is a floor or a wall on top of a floor on top of a floor on top of a floor," he said. "Typically, an individual has a specific amount of time in regards to lack of food, water and air. This collapse just doesn't provide any of that sort."
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said he expected the recovery operation to take several more weeks.
The formal transition was to take place at midnight. Hours earlier, rescue workers, their helmets held to their hearts and their boots covered in dust, joined local officials, rabbis and chaplains in a moment of silence. The rabbis and chaplains walked down a line of officials, many of them sobbing, and hugged them one by one.
A Miami-Dade fire helicopter flew over the site. As the ceremony neared its end, an accordion player, unseen on a nearby tennis court, played Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which was followed by a piccolo playing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Firefighters from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the federal government and elsewhere were also present.
On a tall nearby fence, families and well-wishers had posted photos of the victims, supportive messages and flowers. Firefighters hung a banner atop the fence that read "Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Mourns With You."
Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building on Sunday, allowing rescuers access to new areas of debris they hoped would contain "voids," or open pockets with enough room for a person.
Some of those voids did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no survivors emerged. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims. Because the building fell in the early morning hours, many were found dead in their beds.
No one has been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12-storey Champlain Towers South building fell on June 24.
Twice during the search operation, rescuers had to suspend the mission because of the instability of the remaining part of the condominium building and the preparation for demolition.
After initially hoping for miraculous rescues, families have slowly braced themselves for the news that their relatives did not survive.
"For some, what they're telling us, it's almost a sense of relief when they already know (that someone has died) and they can just start to put an end to that chapter and start to move on," said Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic Maggie Castro, who has updated families daily.
Authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse and at least six lawsuits have been filed by Champlain Towers families.