The death toll after the collapse of an apartment tower in the US state of Florida has risen to nine, officials said on June 27, with more than 150 people still missing and their weary families waiting more than three days afterwards for information as to their fate.
The outlook grew grimmer by the hour, however, as the slow rescue operation, involving workers sorting nonstop through the rubble in torrid heat and high humidity, carried on.
Four new bodies and other human remains were found after rescuers dug an enormous trench – 38m long, 6m wide and 12m deep – through the mountain of debris, according to the Miami-Dade county mayor.
“We were able to recover four additional bodies in the rubble … So I am confirming today that the death toll is at nine,” mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters in Surfside, near Miami Beach, adding that one victim had died in hospital. “We’ve identified four of the victims and notified next of kin.”
“We are making every effort to identify those others who have been recovered,” she said in a morning briefing.
Six to eight squads, backed by two huge cranes and aided by sniffer dogs, are “on the pile actually searching at any given time”, she added.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis said debris with “forensic value” is being taken to a large warehouse to be inspected as investigators seek to determine the cause of the collapse.
And Surfside mayor Charles Burkett said accommodation was being found for anyone wishing to evacuate the tower’s nearly identical “sister” building a block away, though no structural problems have yet been identified there.
Mexican and Israeli engineers and search-and-rescue specialists have joined an army of US workers at the site.
Teams in protective gear have been toiling round the clock since the early-morning June 24 collapse, but are only able to work a half-hour at a time before handing the job to the next crew.
“We don’t have a resource problem,” Burkett told ABC’s This Week. “We have a luck problem. We need to get more lucky right now.”
The 12-storey oceanfront Champlain Towers South pancaked in the middle of the night on June 24 as residents slept. Surveillance video of the collapse showed it coming down in just a few seconds.
Jake Samuelson’s grandparents, Arnie and Myriam Notkin, are among those missing, although his mother continues to receive phone calls from their landline, with only static on the other end, the family told local media.
“We are trying to rationalise what is happening here, we are trying to get answers,” Samuelson told Local 10 news, unaware whether the calls were from his grandparents or mechanical failure.
On June 26, President Joe Biden tweeted his condolences, offering any federal assistance needed: “My heart is with the community of Surfside as they grieve their lost loved ones and wait anxiously as search and rescue efforts continue.”
So far, four victims have been identified by local police – Gladys and Antonio Lozano, respectively aged 79 and 83; 54-year-old Stacie Fang, whose 15-year-old son was rescued from the debris on June 24; and Manuel LaFont, also 54.
At least 18 Latin American nationals are among the missing – including Uruguayans, Argentines and Paraguayans. Canada has also said at least four of its citizens may be “affected”, without elaborating.
Families of the missing have expressed mounting frustration and anger at the wait as concerns grow about the building’s condition before the collapse. Officials who spoke on June 27 repeatedly sought to reassure them that everything possible is being done.
“We’re moving as fast as we can, as hard as we can,” Miami-Dade fire chief Alan Cominsky told reporters.
Anger was fanned by news on June 25 that an engineer’s survey of the building in 2018 had pointed to “major structural damage” to a concrete slab beneath a ground-level pool deck, as well as “abundant” damage inside the parking garage.
Authorities have stressed that the reason for the collapse could take months to determine.