Local leaders had said Friday that the process could take weeks because the structure is so fragile, but the emergence of Tropical Storm Elsa in the Caribbean prompted them to rethink their plans. Elsa, which was downgraded from a hurricane on Saturday, could swipe South Florida early next week, bringing harsh wind and rain, creating hazards for workers.
“The fear was that the hurricane may take the building down for us, and take it down in the wrong direction,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. Demolishing the building quickly, he said, “will allow our rescue workers to pore all over the site without fear of any danger.”
The decision to speed up the demolition came as firefighters face mounting odds in the quest to find survivors trapped beneath the rubble. Their search has been challenged by rainstorms, lightning strikes, fires and concerns about the stability of the remaining building. No one has been found alive beyond the immediate hours after the collapse. Now federal investigators are scrambling to preserve critical evidence before the standing building comes down, Levine Cava said, as they try to understand the tower’s sudden failure.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Saturday that city leaders agreed to move faster after state engineers examined the building. The state government will cover the costs of the operation, DeSantis said, adding that the tower could be brought “straight down with some type of charge.”
“Given the fact that the storm is coming, it is the prudent thing to do,” DeSantis said of the demolition.
As Elsa raced across the Caribbean on Saturday, the governor declared a state of emergency in Miami-Dade County and a dozen other areas along the coast.
The National Hurricane Center said Saturday night that tropical storm conditions are possible in the Florida Keys on Sunday night and that rain is likely to hit that area and the Florida Peninsula early in the week, potentially causing flooding. Elsa is expected to head toward the Florida Straits on Monday and Florida’s west coast on Tuesday, the center said.
Two additional victims were recovered from the wreckage, officials said Saturday, bringing the death toll to 24, with 121 people unaccounted for. Officials on Saturday evening released the names of two more victims: Graciela Cattarossi, 48, and Gonzalo Torre, 81.
Survivors and families of the missing have been briefed on the demolition plans, Levine Cava said. “They understand where we are,” she said. “Of course, everyone is devastated by the process.”
Surfside officials also pushed back Saturday on accusations that they slowed important repair work on the condo building in the month before disaster struck.
The property manager for Champlain Towers South had pressed authorities to clear the way for next steps on repair work, according to emails released by Surfside and reported Friday by the Miami Herald.
“This is holding us up,” manager Scott Stewart had written in an email to Surfside officials on June 21, three days before the collapse. He added later: “Can we get some feed back please so we can keep moving forward please.”
Town Manager Andrew Hyatt said in a statement Saturday that plans sent to the town in May were “preliminary” and marked “not for construction,” with no applications for construction permits submitted. “There was no indication … that this submission required emergency action by the Town of Surfside,” Hyatt said.
The condo association had been requesting the city’s input on design changes such as added parking spaces before seeking a building permit, according to emails. The condo was preparing for its 40-year recertification.
“The scheduled work will include numerous improvements that must be made to assure that this building structure remains safe and meets [Florida code],” reads a May 20 letter from Frank P. Morabito, an engineer who in 2018 warned of “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below a pool deck in Champlain Towers South. Morabito asked in an email that day to “hear from the Town in the near future so we can make any necessary revisions.”
After the property manager pressed for a response about a month later, town officials said they would be in contact soon. A day later, on June 23, they sent a list of questions. The next morning, the tower came down.
At the site of the collapse Saturday, demolition crews were working inside the remaining structure with Bobcat tractors, looking for places where they could place explosive charges, according to Burkett.
“We are in a situation where we don’t have time,” the mayor said in an interview. “Lives are at stake, and we need to act.”
The demolition will be conducted by Controlled Demolition Inc., according to Levine Cava. The Maryland-based firm has racked up numerous world records over the years, including for the demolition of the largest single building ever imploded. The company was also behind high-profile projects such as February’s implosion of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
Now that the plans are in motion, Burkett said he hopes the demolition will open more space for rescue teams to search and allow them to work without the looming threat of a second collapse. Bringing down the tower could help workers enter part of the rubble pile they’ve been unable to access and potentially find survivors.
“I’m a realistic person. I know it’s very, very bad, but I’m not going to condemn anybody to death by stopping until we’re finished,” he said. “Given that, there’s only one choice, and that is to go full speed ahead until we pull the last person out of the rubble.”
Some residents with units in the tower’s remaining flanks say they’re ready for the condominium to come down. Steve Rosenthal, who owns Unit 705 in the section that didn’t collapse, welcomed the decision to demolish it sooner rather than later.
“It’s got to go. It’s a hazard, it’s sore, it’s a bad memory,” said Rosenthal, 72. “Tear it down, get rid of it, build a memorial there. I think everyone needs to move on at some point. Because we have to. We just have to.”
Officials said Saturday evening that the demolition will not require evacuations of surrounding buildings, though authorities will clear a site used by first responders. Plans “should not impact people in the area,” Levine Cava said.
Those who want to retrieve belongings from the building before the tower comes down won’t be able to. Even if the structure remained standing for weeks or more, it would be too unstable to allow anyone back inside, officials said.
But crews are scanning the site for pets that may have been left behind, Levine Cava said. Door-to-door searches were too dangerous, she said, but workers had scanned the building with cameras. No animals have been recovered so far, she said.
“I very much understand that pets are part of people’s families,” she said. “My heart goes out to those who fear for their animals, and I just want you to know that additional efforts have been made and are being made.”
Behind the scenes, officials preparing for the demolition have had to weigh an array of variables around safety, weather and the needs of victims’ families. As Tropical Storm Elsa gathered in the Atlantic, discussions of the timeline quickly narrowed from weeks to days or hours. Using a wrecking ball to demolish the building or remove sections of the material one at a time can take weeks.
But preparing the tower for a controlled implosion could be done in six to 12 hours, said Allyn E. Kilsheimer, a veteran engineer hired by Surfside to investigate the collapse. Crews will have to drill inside the tower and plant explosive charges on specific vertical supports before detonating.
What’s left of Champlain Towers South has increasingly become an obstacle in the mission to pull missing residents from the wreckage. On Thursday, “structural concerns” prompted crews to halt their work for nearly 15 hours while engineers inspected the part of the building that still stands. They later resumed searching for survivors, but only on a small fraction of the pile.
Henry Koffman, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California who has worked in forensic engineering for nearly 30 years, said officials were smart to decide to demolish what’s left of the building. He said the fastest method would be to implode it with dynamite or other explosives.
“I expect that’s what they’re going to do if they’re in a big hurry to get it down,” he said.
Even though emergency crews are worried about disturbing the pile as the search for survivors continues, Koffman said it should be possible to demolish without causing the remaining building to fall on top of it.
“They can blow it up and plan to have it fall away from the rubble,” he said. “Demolition people will do it, nothing really special.”
Echoing Kilsheimer, Koffman said a dynamite demolition could be completed in a day or two, as long as crews had access to building plans and can locate critical structural elements to design the charges around.
In the days since the June 24 collapse, clues have surfaced about what might have led to one of the worst building collapses in U.S. history, but it could take investigators months to nail down a definitive cause. In the meantime, the impact of the collapse has continued to ripple throughout the region, with calls for stricter and more timely evaluations.
On Friday, officials ordered the evacuation of a condominium building in North Miami Beach deemed “structurally and electrically unsafe.” Hundreds of residents fled the Crestview Towers, a 156-unit high-rise about seven miles from the Surfside collapse.
As they look to halt any further damage, Kilsheimer said demolishing the remnants of Champlain Towers South was the right thing to do, both for the rescuers and those who remain trapped beneath the rubble.
“When the wind comes, depending on lots of things, it could fall on top of all or part of the existing debris,” he said. “And that would drop more weight on top of an area where there’s hope there are people alive.”
Lori Rozsa and Meryl Kornfield in South Florida, Caroline Anders and Jason Samenow in Washington and Jon Swaine in San Diego contributed to this report.