Nonetheless, authorities stopped short of saying all victims had been located. Ninety-two people have been identified as of Thursday evening, and there remains the possibility that one or more victims were never officially reported missing. Police spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta said the search for any other possible victims would continue until crews have reached the bottom of the debris pile.
“They’re almost at the bottom to be able to say, we’ve reached rock bottom, we’ve searched every inch of this property and that’s when we say, ‘Okay, we’re done,’ ” Zabaleta told The Washington Post, noting that it was difficult to say how much longer that could take.
Though officials initially feared that more than 150 people could be trapped beneath the rubble, that number declined as detectives found some people safe and realized other names had been reported twice, sometimes in both Hebrew and English.
As the search approaches its conclusion, families are shifting to holding funerals while investigators piece together what caused the building to collapse. By Wednesday, 22 million pounds of debris and concrete had been moved. Responders were safeguarding jewelry, photo albums and other personal items in hopes of connecting them to relatives.
“Plates you can replace, a vase you can replace,” Rabbi Yossi Harlig, the Miami-Dade police chaplain, said recently. “But a holy book or tallit [a prayer shawl] or tefillin [a case containing Torah texts for weekday morning prayers] or something that was in the family that was passed from generation to generation, those are things you want to make sure you can get back.”
The rescue mission was fraught with difficulties from Day 1: Crews searching through the rubble repeatedly had to pause their quest to find survivors as storms, fires and the unstable remains of the tower threatened their safety. Families were left not knowing whether to hold out hope or begin to grieve — an in-between that one expert calls “ambiguous loss.”
Each emotional news conference from officials shed light on the people who died at Champlain Towers South. The building’s population, which included Latin American immigrants and Orthodox Jews, reflected the Miami area’s international appeal. Family members visited the site, some yelling out in agony the names of their loved ones as they waited for answers.
“The body is missing, you don’t know if the person is dead or alive — there’s no proof of either death or living,” Pauline Boss, a researcher and family therapist, said as the search for survivors pressed on. “In the absence of truth and in the absence of certainty, we need to have patience with these people who still have hope.”
Hope seemed to fade at the end of the second week of the search. On July 7, three days after demolishing what was left of Champlain Towers South, local officials said no additional victims were thought to be alive and the operation would shift from a rescue to a recovery.
The collapse had an immediate and widespread ripple effect, calling into question the role of powerful condo associations and inspection requirements, and sparking fears that other high-rises dotting the Miami skyline could be in danger.
Records released by local authorities showed that an engineer, Frank P. Morabito, warned in October 2018 that he had discovered “major structural damage” and a “major error” in the construction of the building. The exact cause of the partial collapse is unknown and could take months to decipher. Various lawsuits have been filed on behalf of victims against the Champlain Towers South condominium association.
The area where the condo once stood, meanwhile, has become a place of mourning. After officials announced the switch to a recovery operation, a moment of silence was held at the site. A Miami-Dade police chaplain described it as a “holy site.”
Not far from the rubble, photos, flowers, personal notes and flags cover the Surfside Wall of Hope and Memorial, where people have come by to pay their respects.
The building did not have a record of everyone inside at the time of the collapse, making it difficult to know how many might have been trapped. The number unaccounted for steadily declined as detectives conducted a detailed probe. Some were found safe with other relatives also thought to be missing. Multiple family members in some instances reported the same person disappeared, with variations on names.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said recently that the process of identifying remains had become more difficult. Still, authorities said they were using every tool available to bring families closure.
“Our teams have continued the search and rescue — excuse me, search and recovery,” Levine Cava said Tuesday, taking a pause to place her hand on her chest, “as we work as hard as ever on the collapse to recover remains and to bring closure to the families that are still waiting.”
For some families, the mourning process has begun.
A procession of hundreds of cars and motorcycles drove down the main road in a rural village in Paraguay on Tuesday. Ahead of them, a white car decorated with flowers carried the remains of Leidy Luna Villalba, a 23-year-old woman who had traveled to Florida to work for relatives of the nation’s first lady.
Neighbors, friends and strangers showed up to honor Luna Villalba, regarded as a symbol of hope in her native town of General Eugenio Garay.
Nilda Villalba, her cousin, said the day brought painful memories of a life cut short but also showed her ability to “touch so many lives.”
“We lived through the worst thing in the world,” she said. “But I have never felt prouder of her — she was so loved, she had so many friends. I finally accepted she won’t be in our lives anymore, but she will forever live in our hearts.”