(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 death toll rose to 20 on Friday from last week’s condominium tower collapse in Florida after search-and-rescue crews found two more bodies, including the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter.
The painstaking search for victims in the rubble, suspended for much of Thursday over worries that a remaining section of the 12-story tower could come down, proceeded on Friday with greater caution and a watchful eye on a hurricane forecast to hit Florida.
As of Friday afternoon 128 people were listed as missing and feared buried beneath tons of pulverized concrete, twisted metal and splintered lumber as the search stretched into its ninth day.
The number of people on the missing list dropped by 17 from Thursday. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters that the totals were fluid and sometimes revised when investigators learned of additional family members when determining whether missing residents were safe.
The body of the firefighter’s daughter was the third child fatality to be recovered from the debris in the oceanfront town of Surfside, next to Miami Beach. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald that the firefighter was at the recovery site at the time, though not digging through the rubble.
The firefighter and his brother, also a firefighter, have kept a vigil at the site since last week, waiting until the girl was discovered, the paper reported. About 200 officers saluted as her body was carried away, the Herald said.
“Every victim we remove is very difficult,” Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky. “Last night was even more, when we were removing a fellow firefighter’s daughter. As firefighters, we do what we do – it’s kind of a calling. But it still takes a toll.”
No survivors have been pulled alive from the ruins since the first few hours after the Champlain Towers South tower partially caved in on itself early on June 24 as most residents slept.
Authorities halted the search early on Thursday after engineers detected movement in the debris pile, raising concerns that the remaining section of the tower might topple onto rescue workers.
U.S. ARMY RESERVE UNITS ARRIVE
The operation resumed about 15 hours later when it was deemed safe, though with a new set of precautions in place and limited to just three of nine grids demarcated in the ruins.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wrote on Twitter that more than 400 members of the U.S. Army Reserve from Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia had arrived in Surfside to assist in the effort.
The remaining part of the building will ultimately be demolished, but Levine Cava said on Friday that it would “take some time” before that occurs.
Crews also sought to make progress before the expected arrival of Elsa, which strengthened into the first hurricane of the 2021 season on Friday as it churned in the Caribbean Sea.
The storm could approach South Florida as early as Monday, National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda told reporters, with tropical storm-force winds possible on Sunday. Elsa’s forecasted path remains uncertain.
The search resumed shortly after President Joe Biden toured the scene on Thursday. Local officials said the operation was not halted due to his visit.
Investigators have not determined what caused the 40-year-old condo complex to abruptly crumble into a heap in what may ultimately be listed as one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.
A 2018 engineering report prepared for a safety-recertification process found structural deficiencies that are now the focus of various inquiries, including a grand jury examination.
USA Today, citing a 2020 document the newspaper obtained from a family member of a missing victim, reported that the same firm noted “curious results” after testing the depth of the concrete slab below a pool. The document did not elaborate, the newspaper said.
As recently as April, a condo association president sent residents a letter warning them that major concrete damage identified by the engineer around the base of the building had grown significantly worse.
Several lawsuits have already been filed on behalf of survivors and victims against the association’s board.
In a statement on Friday, the board – some of whose members remain missing – said it would appoint an independent receiver to “oversee the legal and claims process.”
The board said it would continue working with investigators to understand the cause of the tragedy.