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99 unaccounted for in Florida condo collapse as search effort continues

Chani Nir's family were among the first ones out of the Miami-Dade condo building after it collapsed on June 24. She feels lucky to be alive. (Video: James Cornsilk, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Friday’s updates: Florida condo collapse

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Early Thursday, in a terrifying instant, a large section of a high-rise condo collapsed in South Florida, shearing off part of the building and leaving at least one person dead and 10 injured, with scores more missing and an urgent question: How did this happen?

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The disaster in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, prompted a massive search-and-rescue effort, with first responders combing through the rubble, pulling out a young boy and using ladders to help stranded residents off balconies on the tower’s still-standing side. Witnesses said they heard cries for help from the wreckage. But as the search wore on, authorities braced for bad news.

Here are some significant developments

By early Thursday evening, 102 residents had been located, but 99 people were still unaccounted for, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. It’s possible some among them were not in the building when it fell, officials said. But they think the death toll will probably rise.

“We are all praying, we are all crying, we are all here with the suffering families,” Levine Cava said at a news conference. “We urge everyone to join us in prayers and hopes.”

It was unclear what caused the 40-year-old, 12-story building to topple, and officials said they did not know whether the rest of the structure was stable. Engineers were investigating the site, but authorities cautioned that it may take them some time to determine an exact cause. The condominium, Champlain Towers South, passed a roof inspection on Wednesday, Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul told The Washington Post.

Some construction was done there recently, and according to a research paper published last year, the structure, which was erected on reclaimed wetlands, has been sinking since the 1990s.

Footage from security cameras nearby shows a wing of the building suddenly crumbling and a dust cloud filling the air. At least 55 of more than 130 units were destroyed. The interiors of some could be seen from the outside; on one floor, a bunk bed stood along the building’s jagged edge. One witness described seeing people trapped inside using their phone flashlights to signal for help.

“We went running out, and we saw all the debris, and the building was just gone,” said Alexis Watson, 21, a vacationer from Texas. “We heard a couple of people yelling, ‘Help, help, please!’ ”

Residents said the building is a tightknit community — one that reflected the Miami area’s international and cultural diversity, with a large Orthodox Jewish population and families from Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay. Among those unaccounted for are relatives of Silvana López Moreira, the first lady of Paraguay.

In the hours after the collapse, hundreds of residents and family members gathered at the Surfside Community Center, where they awaited word of their loved ones. Some said the scene reminded them of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People were desperate for information. There was agony in the unknown.

Luz Marina Pena carried a photograph of her aunt, 77-year-old Marina Azen, a fourth-floor resident who had lived in the building for 20 years.

“I’m praying for a miracle,” Pena said.

Adriana Chi was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the community center, coordinating with friends and family, searching for news about her brother, Edgar Gonzalez. His wife and daughter were hospitalized and they had just come out of surgery, she said.

“We’re waiting to hear about my brother,” Chi said. “Nobody’s heard from him. … I’m just trying to find somebody who can tell me if they saw him, or where he is. We just want to find some kind of information on him.”

Authorities did not identify the first person reported dead and they were unable to say whether anyone else had been killed. They emphasized that search-and-rescue operations were ongoing. Surfside City Manager Andrew Hyatt told reporters the operation could last at least a week. Fire department officials described a treacherous mission involving dozens of firefighters tunneling through a parking garage beneath the building, shifting chunks of concrete and tending to small blazes along the way. They will continue their work through the night.

“We ask for painful patience,” said Alfredo Ramirez III, director of Miami-Dade police. “I know that’s a hard ask.”

A 12-story condo building partially collapsed on June 24 in Surfside, Fla., killing at least one person. (Video: Reuters)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) toured the site and called it “really, really traumatic.”

“It’s a tragic day,” he said. “We still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors.”

President Biden said the White House was monitoring the situation and is prepared to send a team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency “immediately” after DeSantis declared an emergency.

“We will be there,” Biden said.

Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade mayor, said she is issuing an emergency order, which will begin the process that triggers federal assistance.

The upscale building was constructed in 1981 and several units are listed for sale on Zillow with an asking price of $600,000 or more. Experts said a collapse like this is rare and the cause will probably take years to unravel, barring something obvious such as a sinkhole that compromised the building’s foundation.

The roof of the building was recently undergoing replacement and repairs of corroded concrete and rusted steel were being prepared, said Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for the building’s condominium association.

Direktor said that the building was “thoroughly inspected” recently, part of a process in which buildings in Surfside must be recertified when they reach 40.

A report on the inspection was completed in the past few months and submitted to town authorities, said Direktor, who also said he did not have a copy. The Post requested the report from the town, which acknowledged the request.

Direktor said that the report’s findings were “fairly typical” for a building of its age and did not cast doubt on its structural integrity. “There was nothing in the report that would have indicated a life-safety concern,” he said.

“Something horrible happened,” Direktor added. “This isn’t the result of hairline cracks in the concrete.”

Direktor said the building was inspected by Frank Morabito, an experienced engineer who Direktor said was now assisting authorities investigating the collapse. Morabito did not respond to a request for comment.

The attorney said that while nothing had been ruled out, he knew of no indications that the collapse had been a deliberate act. He said officials from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were at the site.

Peter Dyga, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida East Coast Chapter, said numerous factors may have contributed: Possible design or material flaws, environmental impacts or poor craftsmanship.

“It takes a major concurrence of catastrophic events for something like this to happen,” he said. “There needs to be a very slow and very deliberate investigation, and we just can’t speculate as to a cause.”

Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University’s department of earth and environment, co-authored the April 2020 paper that found the building has been sinking for decades. Satellite imagery showed the condo — which the paper did not name — had sunk by about two millimeters per year between 1993 and 1999.

In an interview, Wdowinski said this was the Champlain Towers South building. An image in the paper highlighted the location of the sinking building, which appeared to match that of Champlain Towers South. His findings were first reported by USA Today.

“I was shocked to see it collapsed,” Wdowinski said.

The paper found that subsidence in the Miami Beach area contributed to rising sea levels and increased flooding hazards. Wdowinski cautioned that it was not clear whether the subsidence he found was connected to the building’s collapse.

“It appears to be something very localized to one building, so I would think the problem was more likely to be related to the building itself,” he said.

Wdowinski said he had not discussed his findings with Surfside authorities and that he thought it unlikely that they would be aware of his study.

Surfside Town Commissioner Eliana R. Salzhauer said nothing in the building’s recertification process suggested it would be vulnerable to such a catastrophic failure and she is urging investigators to scrutinize whether rising sea levels are to blame.

“I think this is all tied to sea level rise and our overdevelopment,” Salzhauer said. “And Mother Earth comes back, and the ocean comes back, and takes it.”

Bradley Lozano’s family has owned a unit on the side of the building that collapsed since the mid-2000s. His stepfather lived there, and the family had not heard from him as of Thursday morning, Lozano said. They spent the morning checking the reunification center and hospitals but couldn’t find him.

“We’re still waiting to hear just like everybody else,” Lozano, 37, told The Post.

Lozano, who owns a mortgage servicing company, said he was asleep at home in Pinecrest, Fla., when his brother woke him before 4 a.m. and told him the tower had come down. He turned on the news and saw the heaps of concrete and metal.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “You just don’t see that in our country, really.”

Lozano questioned whether construction at the building just south of the tower may have rattled the foundation and weakened the structure. During visits to the condo over the past two years, he said, he frequently saw heavy machinery pounding away at the ground. Neighbors were also wary of the construction work, he said.

He described Champlain Towers South as a “family building,” filled with a mix of snowbirds and full-time residents. Airbnb rentals were barred, so the community was close.

“Everybody who lived there knew each other,” Lozano said.

Virginia Borges spent much of Thursday trying to find information on her sister, Stacie Fang, whose son was one of two people pulled from the rubble in a dramatic predawn rescue.

“He was rescued, but he has no idea what happened to his mother,” Borges said. “Nobody has any idea what happened to her. It’s like she just disappeared.”

She said the 15-year old is hospitalized, but he was not badly injured.

“He wants to know what happened to his mother,” Borges said. “We all want to know.”

By late afternoon, Borges had arrived at the Surfside community center, where officials were helping reunite family, friends and neighbors. She showed a picture of her sister to a worker who took down her information. If they heard anything, the woman told Borges, they would let her know.

As the day darkened and rain poured late on Thursday, a small gathering of onlookers continued to watch the rescue efforts from behind yellow police tape, trying to make sense of the calamity.

Some Surfside residents said they learned of the collapse when their power and gas was shut off by authorities launching rescue efforts. They wondered out loud how a building that had withstood decades of hurricanes could be flattened in an instant.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said one neighbor who declined to share his name.

For some residents who have flocked to South Florida from New York and New Jersey, the collapse brought back a haunting reminder of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Jorge Ramirez, 45, who lives a block from Collins Ave., watched the airplane fly into the second tower from across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Early on Thursday morning, he heard a loud roar that sounded like thunder. By morning, he learned of his neighbors trapped beneath rubble.

“I never thought I would see this twice in my lifetime,” he said, asking, "Where are you safe?”

Bella, Hawkins and Thebault reported from Washington. Tim Craig, Jon Swaine, Meryl Kornfield, Tim Elfrink, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, David Suggs and María Luisa Paú contributed to this report.