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Surfside recovery operation underway as death toll reaches 64

Authorities: 4 additional bodies found in rubble, 76 people potentially missing
First responders work at the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building on Juny 8, 2021.jpg
Posted at 9:15 AM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 21:33:31-04

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Exactly two weeks after a Surfside condominium building partially collapsed in the middle of the night, killing dozens and sparking an intense international effort to find survivors, the painstaking efforts on Thursday have transitioned from a search-and-rescue mission to a recovery operation.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Thursday evening that 4 additional bodies have been found in the rubble, bringing the death toll to 64. The mayor said 76 people are potentially missing and 200 are accounted for.

"The work continues with all speed and urgency," Levine Cava said. "We are working around-the-clock to recover victims and to bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can."

Levine Cava said Thursday detectives are still working to verify that each of those listed as missing was actually in the building when it collapsed.

WATCH NEWS CONFERENCE:

Surfside Condo Collapse update Thursday 6 p.m.

The mayor said hundreds of first responders paused their work around 1:20 a.m. Thursday for a moment of silence to mark two weeks since the devastating collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building.

The search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort at midnight after authorities said they had come to the agonizing conclusion that there was "no chance of finding life" in the rubble.

"When [the transition] happened, it took a little piece of the hearts of this community," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida.

Now that the effort has transitioned to a recovery operation, Levine Cava said there are some "slightly technical differences" in the work, but "essentially we are taking as much care as ever to proceed to find victims in the rubble."

"It's proceeding just as rapidly with just as many people on the pile," Levine Cava said.

The mayor added that discussions are underway to create some type of permanent memorial to honor the victims of the tragedy.

In an effort to provide relief to the Champlain Towers South residents, along with the families of the victims and missing, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he's suspending all property tax enforcement on the building.

"My goal is to suspend, waive any law I can under the state of emergency to forestall that," DeSantis said. "And then we probably will just ask the Legislature to remit any of the property tax liability from Champlain Towers South. So we'll work hard on that, and I think we're gonna be able to get that done."

Rescuers spent two weeks digging through the rubble as part of a grueling and exhaustive search-and-rescue operation, looking in vain for any signs of life.

"We are all still praying for a miracle. We haven't given up all hope," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue officials said during a Wednesday evening news conference it will likely take several weeks for first responders to reach all of the victims still underneath the rubble.

"We're gonna continue doing everything we can to find everyone's loved one," said MDFR Chief Alan Cominsky.

Over the past two weeks, emergency crews have removed more than 7 million pounds of concrete and debris from the Champlain Towers South condominium building site, worked tirelessly in 12-hour shifts, and braved severe weather to find any signs of life.

Cominsky said the decision to shift to a recovery operation was based on the severity of the collapse, the viability of life surviving underneath the rubble, as well as engineering, medical, and other factors.

"Crews worked under arduous conditions. Through rain, smoke, fire, and even imminent danger of a secondary collapse," Cominsky said. "These courageous individuals saw the possibility to save lives at the risk of losing their own."

Officials said this type of "pancake" collapse has the lowest probability of survival and very few voids to sustain life.

"Typically, an individual has a specific amount of time in regards to lack of food, water, and air. This collapse just doesn't provide any of that," said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah. "There was no voids. It was unprecedented in regards to the lack of voids for surviveability."

Dennis Dirkmaat, an anthropology professor who chairs the Department of Applied and Forensic Sciences at Mercyhurst University, said he expects crews will use heavy equipment in a "top-down approach" to methodically lift material off the debris pile, place it in containers, and evaluate it for evidence of human remains. He said the process would likely be repeated as the crews move to subsequent floors.

"It's still a process, slow, tedious process of removing all of this debris. And so it's going to take a while," Dirkmaat said.

The hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building earlier this week, allowing rescuers access to new areas of debris.

Some of those voids did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no survivors emerged. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims. Because the building fell in the early morning hours, many were found dead in their beds.

No one has been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12-story building collapsed on June 24. Officials have publicly identified the following victims:

  • Hilda Noriega, 92
  • Claudio Bonnefoy, 85
  • Antonio Lozano, 83
  • Gonzalo Torre, 81
  • Leon Oliwkowicz, 80
  • Magaly Elena Delgado, 80
  • Gladys Lozano, 79
  • Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74
  • Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69
  • Tzvi Ainsworth, 68
  • Ingrid Ainsworth, 66
  • David Epstein, 58
  • Bonnie Epstein, 56
  • Frank Kleiman, 55
  • Staci Dawn Fang, 54
  • Manuel LaFont, 54
  • Marcus Joseph Guara, 52
  • Michael David Altman, 50
  • Graciela Cattarossi, 86
  • Gino Cattarossi, 89
  • Simon Segal, 80
  • Anna Ortiz, 46
  • Anaely Rodriguez, 42
  • Luis Bermudez, 26
  • Andreas Giannitsopoulous, 21
  • Lucia Guara, 10
  • Emma Guara, 4
  • Nancy Kress Levin, 76
  • Jay Kleiman, 52
  • Francis Fernandez, 67
  • Elaine Lia Sabino, 71
  • Gary Cohen, 58
  • Juan Alberto Mora Jr., 31
  • Andrea Cattarossi, 56
  • Ruslan Manashirov, 36
  • Harold Rosenberg, 52
  • Gloria Machado, 71

Twice during the search operation, rescuers had to suspend the mission because of the instability of the remaining part of the condominium building, as well as to prepare for demolition.

After initially hoping for miraculous rescues, families had slowly braced themselves for the news that their relatives did not survive.

"For some, what they're telling us, it's almost a sense of relief when they already know [that someone has died] and they can just start to put an end to that chapter and start to move on," said Miami-Dade firefighter/paramedic Maggie Castro, who has updated families daily.

Authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse and at least six lawsuits have been filed by Champlain Towers families.

Investigators are seeking the assistance of the community in obtaining information from anyone who witnessed the Surfside building collapse. Anyone who has videos or photos is asked to call the Surfside Collapse Witness Tip Line at 305-428-4417 from 8:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.

A family information and reunification center continues to operate at the Surfside Recreation Center, located at 9301 Collins Avenue, for people who are unable to locate their relatives who live in the building.

You can open a Missing Person Report by clicking here or calling 833-930-3701.

If you live at the Champlain Towers property or you know a person who lives there who has been found safe, click here.

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