(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Rescue personnel continue the search and rescue operation for survivors at the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
By Katanga Johnson and Francisco Alvarado
SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – The grim, painstaking search for victims in the rubble of a collapsed Miami-area condominium complex, briefly suspended over safety concerns, proceeded on Friday with greater caution and a watchful eye on a hurricane that could strike Florida within days.
The confirmed death toll stood at 18, with 145 other people still missing and feared buried beneath tons of pulverized concrete, twisted metal and splintered lumber as the search stretched into its ninth day on Friday.
Two of the dead were children, aged 4 and 10.
Authorities had halted the rescue and recovery effort early Thursday for fear that a section of the high-rise tower still standing might topple onto search crews in the debris field.
But the operation was restarted about 15 hours later when it was deemed safe, though with a new set of precautionary measures in place, Miami-Dade County Fire and Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky told reporters Thursday evening.
Under the new search plan, teams would confine their work for now to just three of nine grids demarcated in the ruins of the 12-floor Champlain Towers South condo, Cominsky said.
Authorities were eager to make as much progress as possible before the expected arrival of Elsa, which strengthened into the first hurricane of the 2021 season on Friday as it threatened the Caribbean.
The storm could hit South Florida by early Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, with heavy rains and strong winds arriving before that. But the center warned that Elsa’s forecasted path remains uncertain.
The renewed search effort began shortly after a visit to the scene on Thursday by U.S. President Joe Biden, who spent about three hours consoling families of the dead and missing in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.
The president also met with first responders, and was briefed by state and local leaders, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widely seen as a potential Republican White House candidate in 2024.
Biden, a Democrat, told them he would deliver “whatever you need” in federal assistance, including temporary housing for survivors.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has helped define his political persona, acknowledged that prospects for finding more survivors dimmed with each passing day but said it was possible someone might still be found alive.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said at a news conference at the nearby St. Regis (NYSE:RGS) hotel after meeting privately with affected families and before viewing flowers and posters woven into a fence as an impromptu memorial near the ruins.
“The whole nation is mourning with these families. They see it every day on television, they’re going through hell,” he told reporters. “I sat with one woman who lost her husband and her little baby boy and didn’t know what to do.”
Nobody has been rescued from the fallen building since the hours immediately after about half of the 136-unit building caved in on itself in the middle of the night, as residents slept.
Investigators have not determined what caused the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble into a heap in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.
But a 2018 engineering report prepared by an engineering firm ahead of a building safety-recertification process found structural deficiencies in the condo complex that are now the focus of various inquiries, including a grand jury examination.
USA Today, citing a document the newspaper obtained from a family member of a missing victim, reported late on Thursday that a 2020 document from the same firm noted “curious results” after testing the depth of the concrete slab below the pool. But the document did not specify what that meant, the newspaper reported.
The firm also documented severe deterioration in the pool area and expressed concern that repairs could threaten the stability of nearby areas, according to USA Today.
As recently as last April, the condo association president warned residents in a letter that major concrete damage identified by the engineer around the base of the building had grown “significantly worse.”
After suspension over safety worries, search resumes for survivors of Florida collapse