Florida condo collapse death toll rises to 11 as search continues

Days after the collapse of a high-rise near Miami, an explanation for the disaster remains elusive.

Crews work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Surfside, Florida [Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo]

Rescue workers digging feverishly for a fifth day stressed that they could still find survivors in the rubble of a collapsed Florida condo building, as an explanation for what caused the disaster sparks a debate.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters on Monday that the confirmed death toll had risen to 11 after the high-rise partially collapsed last week in Surfside, near Miami, while 150 people remained unaccounted for.

Levine Cava said earlier in the day that authorities would conduct a full and thorough investigation to “get to the bottom of what happened here”.

“Right now our top priority is search and rescue and find the people,” she said during a news conference.

The families of those missing rode buses to a site close enough to watch the intense rescue effort, which includes firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts employing radar and sonar devices.

Early on 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 moving through the area, but at least the fires that hampered the initial search have been extinguished.

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.

“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. “This is a frantic search to seek that hope, that miracle, to see who we can bring out of this building alive.”

Others who have seen the wreckage up close were daunted by the task ahead. Alfredo Lopez, who lived with his wife in a 6th 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.

Debate over cause of collapse

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

A town inspector reassured residents in 2018 that the building was in “very good shape”, just a month after an engineer warned that the high-rise had suffered major structural damage that required repair, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) report.

The 2018 report prepared by an engineering firm for the condominium building found serious concrete deterioration in the underground parking garage as well as major structural damage in the concrete slab beneath the pool deck.

The engineer, Frank Morabito, reported the deterioration would “expand exponentially” if it was not repaired in the near future.

But Ross Prieto, a Surfside inspector who had reviewed the report, met residents the following month and assured them the building was safe, according to minutes of the meeting first obtained by NPR.

Prieto is no longer employed by Surfside, according to NPR. He told the Miami Herald newspaper he did not remember getting the report.

In an email to the town manager the morning after the 2018 meeting, Prieto said it had gone “very well” and that the response from residents was “positive”.

The cause of the collapse remains under investigation.

Gregg Schlesinger, a lawyer and former general contractor who specializes in construction failure cases, said it was clear the deficiencies identified in the 2018 report were the main cause of the disaster.

But Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association, said the issues were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower with their families.

Jason Borden, a structural engineer who surveyed the building last year, agreed that any signs of deterioration were typical and were not serious enough to raise red flags.

“What I did see while I was there did not alarm me at all,” he told CNN Monday.

Four victims identified

Authorities on Sunday identified the additional four people that had been recovered as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74; Ana Ortiz, 46; and Luis Bermudez, 26.

Family members of those reported missing react at the entrance of a hotel after visiting the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, June 27, 2021 [Marco Bello/Reuters]

At a makeshift memorial a block away, a laminated poster with a smiling photo of Bermudez and “Mom Ana Ortiz” hung from a chain-link fence, along with other “missing” signs. Flowers and children’s toys were strewn about the fence.

In a letter he shared on Facebook, Bermudez’s father wrote that his son was “My Angel My everything”.

“I LOVE you and love you forever,” Luis Didi Bermudez wrote. “You are and will be the best in my life.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies