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Condo collapse response shifts from rescue to recovery as official says no chance of additional survivors

Florida officials announced on July 7 that search and rescue operations at the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse will transition to recovery operations. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP/Reuters)

SURFSIDE, Fla. — The massive search effort ending its second week here is shifting from rescue to recovery as an official said no additional victims of the condo tower collapse are thought to be alive.

Crews that once hoped to rescue survivors from pockets in the ruins of Champlain Towers South have discovered only bodies in the aftermath of a catastrophe that officials are still trying to explain. With 86 people still unaccounted for, authorities said they found 18 additional victims, the highest number recorded in a day. That pushed the known death toll to 54 as a prosecutor enlisted a grand jury to examine the disaster and, in court, a judge began to tackle the impossible task of compensating people for their losses.

The recovery of victims has quickened since the weekend demolition of a still-standing part of the condo building that gave crews access to new areas of a sprawling rubble pile. But the tone at a Wednesday news conference was decisively grim: “Today after all the facts and all the factors, we’ve decided based on everything that’s been given to us, that there are no live victims,” Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said.

Workers in helmets and masks continued to comb through the wreckage using shovels, drills, backhoes and other heavy equipment, while engineers probed the structural integrity of what is left with ground-penetrating radar. Crews have moved more than 7 million pounds of concrete since the early morning collapse on June 24, and officials emphasized that their operation — which could last weeks longer — will remain intensive. As Tropical Storm Elsa swiped Florida, search teams have been up against rain, wind and time in a precarious effort halted at points by harsh conditions and fears that more of the tower could fall.

Jadallah said the “pancake” nature of the collapse left low chances of finding “void” spaces hiding survivors. In one part of the wreckage, four floors of the building had only three feet of separation between them, he said. Workers kept scouring for pockets to the end, he said but “it was unprecedented in regards to the lack of voids for survivability.”

After announcing the switch to recovery, officials joined hundreds of rescuers by the collapse site in a moment of silence marking the transition, which Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) said would become official at midnight.

Work ceased. Rescuers removed their helmets. “We’re standing at a holy site,” said Miami-Dade Police chaplain Rabbi Yossi Harlig.

After a lengthy pause, the group split: About half returned to the rubble and the others walked to a makeshift memorial erected a block away, joining family members and others who gathered, hugging and shaking hands. As darkness fell, Catholic nuns sang over the sounds of machinery that had resumed, passing out rosaries and clasping glowing white candles.

Families learned of the shift to recovery earlier in the day, officials said. Jadallah said there was grief but little surprise.

Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother and grandmother lived in Unit 1211, said he was not jarred by the news, though he knew it would be a blow to other families. As he saw video of the collapse, he said, he knew his loved ones were dead. “To be honest, it’s been a search and recovery from day one,” he said.

But with the cause of the building’s sudden failure still unclear and many people yet to be accounted for, families are still seeking closure. Authorities said 33 victims have been identified.

Miami-Dade police publicly identified four additional victims on Wednesday: Graciela Cattarossi, 86; Gino Cattarossi, 89; Simon Segal, 80; and Elaine Lia Sabino, 71.

“We can’t even properly begin the grieving process, because we’re still waiting,” Rodriguez said. “They still haven’t found them. They’re still listed as missing. … We don’t how long it’s going to take. We’re just kind of stuck in limbo.”

Jadallah said he reassured families that while the mission has changed, workers’ commitment has not lessened. Crews at first fearful of harming a survivor in the wreckage are now treading carefully to avoid damaging bodies. “The only thing that changes is just the term,” Jadallah said. “Men and women are still there. The support is still there.”

And some leaders were not willing Wednesday evening to abandon all hope of saving additional lives. “A miracle is still possible,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Inquiries into what went wrong in Surfside are still in the early stages. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Wednesday that, at her request, a county grand jury had voted to conduct an investigation into “how we can prevent such a disaster from occurring again, not just in Surfside, and not just in condominiums, but in all buildings and structures in the coastal, intercoastal and surrounding areas of our county, state and nation.”

Grand juries in Florida are able to look at both possible criminal matters as well as broader issues of public policy, and they can issue reports that are aimed at recommending changes to policymakers.

Rundle’s office declined to offer a timetable for the grand jury’s work. In her statement, Rundle said grand juries’ reports there “have historically led the way to numerous reforms and improvements in Miami-Dade County and beyond,” pointing to building code improvements made after one such group’s investigation into Hurricane Andrew’s impact.

Building inspectors also continued to check the safety of other residential towers in the area. Levine Cava said officials had examined 40 buildings and found structural issues in one. A three-story, 24-unit building in Miami Beach was evacuated Saturday night after an inspector discovered a flooring system failure in a vacant unit, and residents were rushed last week from 10-story condo in North Miami Beach after officials deemed it “structurally and electrically unsafe.”

Speaking in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wouldn’t commit to increasing state oversight of Florida’s aging high-rise buildings, suggesting that Champlain Towers South may have been an isolated incident. “I think this building had problems from the start, let’s just put it that way,” he said.

With a flurry of lawsuits seeking compensation over the collapse, a circuit judge in downtown Miami, Michael Hanzman, has agreed to hear all the cases in his courtroom to streamline the process. Dozens of attorneys lined up in Hanzman’s courtroom on Wednesday, volunteering to represent victims and their families free of charge.

Jorge Silva, one of the lawyers who volunteered, said the next steps are to identify contractors and other potential third parties that may share responsibility for the disaster. The building’s insurance policy won’t be large enough to cover the anticipated damages, Silva said, so Hanzman called on the lawyers to find additional ways to help make victims whole.

“Although this building collapse is a large catastrophe, there are a lot of similarities in all these cases,” Silva told The Washington Post. “We’re trying to marshal as many funds as possible from the building insurance, as well as private homeowners insurance and others who have responsibility in this collapse.”

Silva said the claims are expected to fall into three main categories: wrongful death, personal injury and property damage cases. Property damage claims — all but certain to be the largest category — could include damages not just for the destruction of the condo units but for heirlooms, artwork and other personal items lost in the collapse. Owners and guests whose vehicles were destroyed will also be able to seek compensation.

Getting a full picture of the damages could take weeks, Silva said: “This case is still in diapers.”

A support fund set up for the families and victims of the collapse has raised more than $1.7 million and an additional $1.3 million in promised funds, officials said. Survivors were given information on what to expect and how to receive the funds, and authorities were still working Wednesday to find some of them housing.

Hanzman acknowledged that the tragedy in Surfside is incalculable.

“There’s not a sufficient amount of money in the world that can compensate for this,” the judge said.

Knowles reported from San Jose. Hauptman and Hawkins reported from Washington. Mark Berman in Washington and Meryl Kornfield in Surfside contributed to this report.