Surfside condo collapse spurs anxious week of waiting

As the days dragged on, families and friends hoped for good news but feared the worst

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil June 28 in memory of the missing people who were in Champlain Towers South when it collapsed. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil June 28 in memory of the missing people who were in Champlain Towers South when it collapsed. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

A week into a desperate search for survivors of an oceanfront condominium’s catastrophic collapse, hopes are fading fast.

Day after day, a perilous search-and-rescue mission at the Miami-area site has yielded only a growing death toll. As of Friday, rescuers had recovered the remains of 18 people in what is likely to go down as one of the nation’s worst building failures.

More than 140 others are still missing, lost to the towering heap of rubble where Champlain Towers South once stood in Surfside, Fla. Authorities insist survivors could still emerge, even as the hours tick past.

With the week marching to a close, some families of the missing continue to pray for a miracle. But a sense of grief and resignation has set in around the coastal city. For many, hope has run out.

Thursday, June 24

People console each other near Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
People console each other near Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Around 1:15 a.m., residents of the 12-story Champlain Towers complex begin noticing unusual sounds. Then some see the pool deck cave in.

Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue radio channels light up with reports of a collapse at 8777 Collins Ave. Within minutes, before first responders arrive, three massive portions of the building drop to the ground, one after the other.

Scores of law enforcement vehicles line surrounding streets. People whose loved ones lived at the fallen building flow into a makeshift family reunification center. An anxious wait begins.

A neighbor looks out onto the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
A neighbor looks out onto the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
A couple embrace as they wait for news of survivors. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
A couple embrace as they wait for news of survivors. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
People wait for news at the community center. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
People wait for news at the community center. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)

LEFT: A couple embrace as they wait for news of survivors. (Marta Lavandier/AP) RIGHT: People wait for news at the community center. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)

Firefighters try to contain a fire in the rubble. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
Firefighters try to contain a fire in the rubble. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)

Friday, June 25

A woman reacts to the latest news about how many are dead and missing after the condo collapse. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman reacts to the latest news about how many are dead and missing after the condo collapse. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

The air is thick with smoke near the remains of the condo building. More authorities descend upon the small town of Surfside, and police tape off nearby blocks. Hordes of news crews arrive from across the country.

One person is confirmed dead; dozens more are missing. Rescuers probe the smoldering pile of debris in a desperate search for survivors.

All around the police tape, onlookers gather, their eyes on what remains of Champlain Towers South. Some whisper prayers. By nightfall, a memorial to the missing adorns fencing a block from the building.

 An emergency worker leaves the scene. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
An emergency worker leaves the scene. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
Outside of the reunification center. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
Outside of the reunification center. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
A couple embrace as they look at the debris of Champlain Towers South. (Marco Bello/AFP/Getty Images)
A couple embrace as they look at the debris of Champlain Towers South. (Marco Bello/AFP/Getty Images)

LEFT: Outside of the reunification center. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A couple embrace as they look at the debris of Champlain Towers South. (Marco Bello/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescue workers look for survivors among the debris. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers look for survivors among the debris. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman stands near police tape. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
A woman stands near police tape. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Saturday, June 26

A couple at the beach watch the search-and-rescue efforts. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
A couple at the beach watch the search-and-rescue efforts. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

In the parts of Surfside not blocked off by law enforcement, people keep vigil for the missing. They gather in churches and synagogues and along the beach, praying as rescuers keep scouring the wreckage.

But the day brings no news of survivors.

Names of missing people hang at a makeshift memorial. (Andrea Sarcos/AFP/Getty Images)
Names of missing people hang at a makeshift memorial. (Andrea Sarcos/AFP/Getty Images)
A young woman holds a rosary as she prays for the victims. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
A young woman holds a rosary as she prays for the victims. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

LEFT: Names of missing people hang at a makeshift memorial. (Andrea Sarcos/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: A young woman holds a rosary as she prays for the victims. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

People pray during a vigil at St. Joseph Catholic Church. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
People pray during a vigil at St. Joseph Catholic Church. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Sunday, June 27

A Jewish mother and her six daughters pray on the beach. (Maggie Steber for The Washington Post)
A Jewish mother and her six daughters pray on the beach. (Maggie Steber for The Washington Post)

The prayers continue all across Surfside.

An army of volunteers coordinate donations of food, clothing and other supplies for people affected by the disaster. Rescuers, meanwhile, discover the remains of a fifth person.

From the beach, some shout the names of loved ones, hoping their voices might pierce the rubble.

A churchgoer prays during Sunday Mass. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/AP)
A churchgoer prays during Sunday Mass. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/AP)
Two men console each other on the beach. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
Two men console each other on the beach. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
Volunteers gather to load bags of donations of food, clothing and toys. (Maggie Steber for The Washington Post)
Volunteers gather to load bags of donations of food, clothing and toys. (Maggie Steber for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Two men console each other on the beach. (Marta Lavandier/AP) RIGHT: Volunteers gather to load bags of donations of food, clothing and toys. (Maggie Steber for The Washington Post)

People visit a makeshift memorial for the victims. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
People visit a makeshift memorial for the victims. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Monday, June 28

A South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team member looks through rubble for survivors. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/AP)
A South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team member looks through rubble for survivors. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/AP)

The number confirmed dead rises to 11 as the round-the-clock search operation enters its fifth day. It has become the largest non-hurricane rescue mission in Florida history.

After nightfall, hundreds of people gather for a vigil along the beach. They stand in a circle in the sand, holding white roses and glowsticks. It’s quiet except for the crashing waves and occasional sobs.

People attend a vigil. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
People attend a vigil. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
A memorial on the beach. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
A memorial on the beach. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
A woman hangs flowers on a fence. (Macro Bello/Reuters)
A woman hangs flowers on a fence. (Macro Bello/Reuters)

LEFT: A memorial on the beach. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A woman hangs flowers on a fence. (Macro Bello/Reuters)

A tribute to a missing couple. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
A tribute to a missing couple. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

Tuesday, June 29

Lora Hernandez, left, is consoled by her friend Sandra Lopez while she grieves for their friends Graciela and Estella Cattarossi and her daughter Estella, who are among the missing. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
Lora Hernandez, left, is consoled by her friend Sandra Lopez while she grieves for their friends Graciela and Estella Cattarossi and her daughter Estella, who are among the missing. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

Authorities say they are not giving up hope, even as the death toll ticks up to 12. No survivors have been found since the early hours of the collapse.

The White House announces that President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will visit the site Thursday.

Memorials sprout all around the police perimeter, where people place flowers and prayer candles. Some of the rescuers leave toys pulled from the wreckage.

Search-and-rescue crews head out to search for missing people. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
Search-and-rescue crews head out to search for missing people. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
Crews work in the rubble. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Crews work in the rubble. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

LEFT: Search-and-rescue crews head out to search for missing people. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Crews work in the rubble. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

A photo of a missing person is seen on the memorial wall. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
A photo of a missing person is seen on the memorial wall. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

Wednesday, June 30

People visit the makeshift memorial. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
People visit the makeshift memorial. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

So many people have brought bouquets that the growing tennis court memorial is now a wall of flowers.

At an evening news briefing, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announces a 4-year-old and 10-year-old are among the fatalities, which now stand at 18. She notes that any loss of life is a tragedy.

“But the loss of our children,” she continues, “is too great to bear.”

Members of the Mexican Topos Azteca rescue team. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
Members of the Mexican Topos Azteca rescue team. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
A sand sculpture near the site. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/AP)
A sand sculpture near the site. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/AP)

LEFT: Members of the Mexican Topos Azteca rescue team. (Marco Bello/Reuters) RIGHT: A sand sculpture near the site. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/AP)

A closed intersection. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
A closed intersection. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

Thursday, July 1

First lady Jill Biden waves from the motorcade. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
First lady Jill Biden waves from the motorcade. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

The president arrives. Meeting privately with families affected by the condo collapse, Biden draws on his own experience with loss as he tries to offer consolation.

Biden describes the pain of losing his first wife and baby daughter to a car crash and, decades later, his adult son to cancer. He laments that “the waiting, the waiting, is unbearable,” but urges the families not to lose hope.

With first lady Jill Biden at his side, he visits the now expansive memorial to the missing. The two linger on the names and faces. Like so many others, they leave a bouquet of flowers.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit the memorial in Surfside. (Susan Walsh/AP)
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit the memorial in Surfside. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Onlookers wait for President Biden. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
Onlookers wait for President Biden. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade police patrol around the site. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade police patrol around the site. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

LEFT: Onlookers wait for President Biden. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post) RIGHT: U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade police patrol around the site. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Light shines on Champlain Towers South. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/AP)
Light shines on Champlain Towers South. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/AP)
About this story

Editing by Amanda Erickson. Copy editing by Brian Cleveland. Design and development by Jess Eng.

Brittany Shammas is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. She previously worked for the Miami New Times and the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Karly Domb Sadof is an award-winning photo editor at The Washington Post, currently working on the national news desk. She is also a contributing writer for In Sight, The Post’s photography blog. She joined The Post in 2016.