SURFSIDE, Fla. — As the massive search effort shifted from rescue to recovery, officials said Thursday that crews at the site of last month’s condo tower collapse are hoping to provide some closure to families, with no additional victims thought to be alive.
“May God give peace to all those whose hearts have been broken and watch over and care for this community in the difficult days and months ahead,” the mayor said at a news conference.
The confirmed death toll now stands at 64 after authorities said they found 10 additional victims in the rubble.The number of people unaccounted for at Champlain Towers South is 76 as of Thursday afternoon.
The tone during the first day of recovery remained grim. Despite finding some survivors in the hours immediately after the June 24 catastrophe, crews have found no signs of life since as they have moved more than 7 million pounds of concrete from the site. Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said he did not have an exact time frame for when the recovery could conclude.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) reflected on what has been “a rough couple of weeks” for families and the community, saying he felt a pit in his stomach when no additional survivors were found beyond two days after the collapse.
“We hoped there would be survivors located, and when we didn’t get it initially, it kind of gnawed at you inside,” he said. “The work is going to go on, and we’ll obviously identify every single person and do all we can for the survivors and family members to get them on their feet. It’s not going to be easy.”
Miami-Dade police publicly identified a victim on Thursday as Gary Cohen, 58, the uncle of Elisheva Cohen, the 12-year-old girl whose prayer at the collapse site led to a meeting with President Biden. Elisheva’s father, Brad Cohen, is still unaccounted for.
Soriya Cohen, the wife of Brad and sister-in-law of Gary, told The Washington Post in a text message that her brother-in-law was found Wednesday. A doctor at VA Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Gary Cohen was in Surfside visiting his terminally ill father at the time of the collapse.
“The whole family’s in shock,” Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Chabad of Alabama, who was Gary Cohen’s rabbi, told AL.com.
High emotions and prayers marked the shift from rescue to recovery at a memorial referred to by a Miami-Dade police chaplain as “a holy site.” Officers visited the memorial outside the site Thursday to pay their respects to the dead and missing.
Michael Stratton, husband of Cassondra Stratton, a resident of the condo who remains unaccounted for as of Thursday, said in a statement to The Post that loved ones had to “accept the loss of a bright and kind soul with an adventurous spirit.”
“Her talent and determination allowed her to accomplish so much in her short life and leave a mark that will last the rest of ours,” he said. “This wasn’t the miracle we prayed for, but it was not for lack of trying by rescue crews whose tireless bravery will never be forgotten.”
Levine Cava acknowledged Thursday that discussions were underway for a permanent memorial at the site.
But the fallout from the disaster, and inquiries into what went wrong at Surfside, is far from over. A prosecutor said a grand jury has been enlisted to examine the disaster.
“There’s not a sufficient amount of money in the world that can compensate for this,” the judge said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on Thursday vowed to make access to government funding easier for those affected, while DeSantis said he had suspended the property tax on the building and wanted to remove any additional tax liability from those at Champlain Towers South. But the governor has not committed to increasing the state oversight of Florida’s aging high-rise buildings, suggesting that the Surfside condo collapse may have been an isolated incident.
This comes as the state’s condominium laws are expected to undergo a top-to-bottom review by a task force established by the Florida Bar Association. Critics say the state laws and regulations that govern condo developments, board operations and maintenance rules have long been undermined by politics, turf wars and human nature. Although investigators warn that it could be months before a cause of the collapse is known, attention has turned to the decisions made — or not made — by city officials, consultants, developers and the residents and board members of Champlain Towers South.
Meanwhile, buildings like Champlain Towers South are under new scrutiny by county and city officials across Miami. For nearly a week since North Miami Beach officials deemed the Crestview Towers building unsafe, its residents have been unable to return home, even as the condo association insists that there are no structural or electrical deficiencies that make the building unlivable.
In response to surveys from a structural engineer and electrician, city officials said in a letter released Thursday that they have not complied with the audit process for buildings older than 40 years.
“More disturbing is that the surveys in no way reference or directly refute the 40-Year Recertification Report,” wrote building official J. Daniel Ozuna.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said a representative from the Miami-Dade fire department spoke to the victims’ families Thursday afternoon, vowing not to stop working until recovery workers have gotten to the bottom of the pile.
“The speaker further said I can assure you,” Burkett said, “we are not stopping, and your missing children are coming back to your family.”