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Live Updates: Rescue Work Resumes at Condo Site; Florida Monitors Hurricane Elsa

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Condo Collapse Deaths Include a Firefighter’s 7-Year-Old Daughter

Officials in Surfside, Fla., said on Friday that the death toll rose to 20 in the collapse of Champlain Towers South, and that two bodies recovered overnight included the young daughter of a Miami firefighter. As many as 128 people remain unaccounted for.

“Last night, we did discover two additional victims. Tragically, one of those victims was the 7-year-old daughter of a city of Miami firefighter. And it goes without saying that every night since this last Wednesday has been immensely difficult for everybody, and particularly the families that have been impacted, but last night was uniquely different. It was truly different, and more difficult for our first responders. We have now confirmed 20 deaths, 188 people are accounted for and 128 are unaccounted for. And you’ll notice that the number of accounted for people has increased.” “You know, every victim we remove, it’s difficult, it’s very difficult. We try to respect, we have a whole process in regards to how we remove each individual that we come across, you know, unfortunately, you know, we haven’t been able to remove any survivors yet. But it’s very difficult, and last night was even more, you know, when removing a fellow firefighter’s daughter, and that’s just where I want to emphasize the emotion. You know, what we’re feeling, you know, as firefighters, we do what we do, you know, and it’s kind of a calling. And we always say that. But it still takes a toll.”

Officials in Surfside, Fla., said on Friday that the death toll rose to 20 in the collapse of Champlain Towers South, and that two bodies recovered overnight included the young daughter of a Miami firefighter. As many as 128 people remain unaccounted for.CreditCredit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The mayor of Miami-Dade County said Friday that she had ordered the demolition of the still-standing portion of Champlain Towers South, a decision made a day after fears that the damaged structure could fall disrupted rescue efforts.

“The building poses a threat to public health and safety, and bringing it down as quickly as possible is critical to protect our community,” said the mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, who cautioned that the demolition would not begin until engineers signed off, perhaps weeks from now.

More than a week since much of the condo tower collapsed, the search effort has proceeded slowly, with some areas of the debris pile deemed too dangerous for rescue crews. Ms. Levine Cava said Friday that four more bodies had been found, bringing the total to 22. As many as 126 people remain unaccounted for.

The 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter was among the most recent victims to be found, a moment that was especially difficult for rescue workers who have labored for more than a week in Surfside, Fla., without finding any survivors.

“Every victim we remove, it’s difficult,” said Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. “Last night was even more when we were removing a fellow firefighter’s daughter.” He added: “As firefighters, we do what we do. It’s kind of a calling. And we always say that. But it still takes a toll.”

Elad Edri, the deputy commander of an Israeli team working at the site, said police officers and firefighters formed two columns to flank the girl’s removal from the debris. Mr. Edri said that once she had been taken away, the rescuers embraced and wept.

The search, which paused for about 14 hours on Thursday amid fears that the rest of the condo building could fall, has been hampered by rough weather and dangerous conditions, with each passing day further dimming the chances of finding survivors. Though rescue crews said they were holding out hope that they might find someone alive — a point Chief Cominsky and Mayor Levine Cava reiterated on Friday — officials have spoken in increasingly blunt terms about the outlook.

“They’re praying, they’re pleading, ‘God, let there be a miracle,’” President Biden said Thursday after meeting with the families of the missing.

The number of people who have not been accounted for dropped slightly Friday after officials audited their reports and found that some people who had been marked missing were in fact safe.

As the weekend approached, authorities were making contingency plans for Hurricane Elsa, which had strengthened Friday from a tropical storm. The hurricane, which was already threatening Caribbean islands, was expected to turn toward Florida by the end of the weekend, with strong winds reaching the state as early as Sunday evening.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said officials were planning to continue searching in Surfside, while also protecting any equipment that might be threatened by the storm and monitoring the stability of the partly collapsed building.

“We’re adding this special emphasis on this site because we understand the sensitivities involved,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Chief Cominsky said crews were monitoring the weather to determine when and if they might have to pause search efforts.

“We want to be working out there as long as we can,” he said.

Even as the search continues and investigations remain in their early stages, court hearings are already being held about the collapse. At a virtual hearing on Friday, a lawyer for the building’s condo association board said the surviving board members — one is still missing — had voted unanimously to appoint an independent party to handle the lawsuits that residents have started filing against the board.

Michael Goldberg, a lawyer, will serve in the position, known as an independent receiver, and will be closely involved in how the association uses $48 million in insurance money and any proceeds from asset sales, including cash distributions to survivors and families of the dead.

The nearby city of North Miami Beach undertook a building audit recommended by Ms. Levine Cava’s office following the collapse, the mayor said, and had found one building that had not completed the necessary recertification process for buildings 40 years and older.

A notice posted on North Miami Beach’s website said a special City Council meeting had been called for Saturday to discuss the evacuation of Crestview Towers, about a seven-mile drive from the collapse site in Surfside.

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Hurricane Elsa Could Impact Site of Surfside Condominium Collapse

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Friday that the state was preparing for Hurricane Elsa to possibly hit by early next week, which could potentially hinder rescue efforts at the Surfside, Fla., collapse site.

As many of you know, Tropical Storm Elsa has now become Hurricane Elsa, and we are working — I’ve ordered our Department of Emergency Management to start preparing a potential state of emergency. We don’t know exactly the track that it’s going to take. It is possible that we could see tropical-force winds as early as Sunday night in southern Florida. And so we’re actively monitoring the situation like we always would do with these storms. But given what we’re doing on this site, we’re also paying special attention to any impacts that could happen here in northeast Miami-Dade County. It is possible that this area could see tropical storm, tropical storm-force winds — not guaranteed, but it is possible. And so our Department of Emergency Management is assuming that that will happen, and making the necessary preparations to be able, obviously, to protect a lot of the equipment. You could potentially have an event with the building as well. So we are going like we normally would with these things. This is just what we do. But we’re adding this special emphasis on this site because we understand the sensitivities involved.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Friday that the state was preparing for Hurricane Elsa to possibly hit by early next week, which could potentially hinder rescue efforts at the Surfside, Fla., collapse site.CreditCredit…NOAA

Tropical Storm Elsa became Hurricane Elsa on Friday morning as it moved along a path that could batter the Caribbean this weekend and hit Florida early next week, potentially complicating rescue work at the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that he was committed to continuing the search for any survivors. He said officials were monitoring the track of the storm and preparing to secure equipment at the site and monitor the stability of the partly collapsed building.

“We’re actively monitoring the situation like we always would do with these storms,” Mr. DeSantis said, “but given what we’re doing on this site, we’re also paying special attention to any impacts that could happen here.”

Elsa’s route remains highly uncertain, but most of Florida lies within the cone forecasters use to project the storm’s course. The potential for strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge could present yet another setback to the search for survivors of last week’s condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., in which 20 people are confirmed to have died and as many as 128 remain missing.

“It’s just so challenging, so many different obstacles” said Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, who added that engineers were monitoring the site and the potential for heavy wind to affect the remaining part of the building.

Tropical-storm-force winds could reach South Florida as early as Sunday evening, according to the National Weather Service, with the center of the storm approaching the state by late Monday or Tuesday morning. The current forecast calls for Elsa to weaken back into a tropical storm as it moves through the Caribbean and toward Florida’s west coast.

Officials in the Miami area urged residents on Friday to begin assembling emergency supplies and to secure objects like patio furniture and trash cans that could blow away.

As Elsa moved over Barbados on Friday, sustained winds of 75 mph were reported with gusts of up to 86 m.p.h. Hurricane warnings were in effect for Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

No survivors have been found at Champlain Towers in more than a week, and the search has already been complicated by heavy rain and structural challenges. Work resumed at the collapse site Thursday evening after being paused earlier in the day amid concerns that portions of the building still standing could fall onto rescuers.

The Biscayne Kennel Club in Miami Shores, Fla., after it collapsed in 1997. A city inspector there later became the chief building official of Surfside, Fla.
Credit…Tim Chapman/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

A building collapse near Miami that killed two men in 1997 is back in the news after it emerged that a city inspector who conducted multiple site visits during that doomed demolition was Ross Prieto, the chief building official in Surfside, Fla., who told residents of Champlain Towers South that their building appeared to be sound nearly three years before its deadly collapse last week.

His reassurances to condo owners in November 2018 that their building appeared to be “in very good shape,” despite a consulting engineer’s concerns, are among the many things investigators are likely to review as they try to determine what led up to the June 24 failure, which left at least 20 people dead and as many as 128 people unaccounted for as of Friday.

The city of Doral, where Mr. Prieto has worked as a consulting building engineer since May, announced this week that Mr. Prieto was on leave for undisclosed reasons, and that it was reviewing the eight projects he had worked on in that city. Though there is no suggestion of problems with his work, a city spokesman said, the review was being undertaken out of “an abundance of caution.”

Mr. Prieto has not spoken publicly since the Champlain Towers South failure and did not respond to repeated requests for comment or a note left at his door.

With few clues yet as to what caused the collapse, experts expect investigators to look at a wide range of potential factors, including delays in acting on the consultant’s recommendations for repairs; design or construction flaws; any issues with subsurface soils; and the possibility that some outside force — a vehicle that struck a post in the underground parking garage, for example — could have affected a key structural component of the building.

Cities across South Florida are reviewing older high-rises along the seashore — notorious for its weathering effect on buildings — to determine whether any of them face potentially serious structural issues.

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Biden Speaks About Meeting Surfside Condo Victims

President Biden talked on Thursday about meeting with both survivors of the condominium building collapse and relatives of those who died or remain missing.

The whole nation is mourning with these families. They see it every day on television. They’re going through hell, and those who survived the collapse, as well as those who are missing loved ones. I sat with one woman who had just lost her, her husband and her little baby boy. Didn’t know what to do. I sat with another family that lost almost an entire family, cousins, brothers, sisters, and to watch them, their praying and pleading that God, let there be a miracle. Let there be something happen for me that’s good. They had basic heart- wrenching questions. Will I be able to recover the body of my son or daughter, my husband, my cousin, my mom and dad? How can I have closure without being able to bury them? If I don’t get the body, what do I do? Jill and I want them to know that we’re with them. And the country’s with them. Our message today is that we’re here for you as one nation. When I talk to some of the families, some, some of the people who did escape, survived, got out, they talked about watching the building collapse, and watching as they’re in the garage, one floor come down, literally as a whole floor on top of another floor. They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly. But at a minimum, at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies.

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President Biden talked on Thursday about meeting with both survivors of the condominium building collapse and relatives of those who died or remain missing.CreditCredit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

President Biden spent three hours on Thursday consoling the families of those who died or were still missing under the rubble of a collapsed condominium building in Surfside, Fla., saying “the waiting is unbearable” for agonized relatives.

In remarks after the private meeting, Mr. Biden said the families were “going through hell.” Many have been waiting for more than a week for word about whether anyone might still be alive under the concrete and steel.

“I sat with one woman who had just lost her husband and her little baby boy, didn’t know what to do,” the president said. “I sat with another family that lost almost the entire family, cousins, brothers, sisters. And to watch them, and they’re praying and pleading and God let there be a miracle.”

The president also met with a group of emergency workers, including firefighters and search-and-rescue teams who had been working for the past week at the site of the disaster.

For Mr. Biden, confronting the largest national tragedy since he took office was complicated by the fact that he could not eulogize those who were still unaccounted for, or hold out much hope for the missing. “They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly,” the president said.

Although his session with family members was closed to the news media, a video of Mr. Biden, posted by one of the family members, appeared to show him discussing the grief he felt after his wife and daughter died in a car crash nearly a half-century ago.

“The waiting, the waiting, is unbearable,” he told the families, and he later said it reminded him of waiting to hear whether his sons would survive.

The Champlain Towers North, the sister property of Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, Fla., on Saturday.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

A year after an engineering consultant hired by the Champlain Towers South warned of “major structural damage” to a concrete slab underneath the pool deck and recommended significant repairs, the slow pace of getting the project underway prompted the president of the condo’s homeowners association to resign.

Anette Goldstein, the condo board president, wrote in a letter to residents that she was frustrated by last-minute objections that would derail progress to get the work started.

“This pattern has repeated itself over and over, ego battles, undermining the roles of fellow board members, circulation of gossip and mistruths,” she wrote in her Sept. 14, 2019, resignation letter, which was obtained by The New York Times and first reported by The Washington Post.

“I am not presenting a very pretty picture of the functioning of our board and many before us, but it describes a board that works very hard but cannot for the reasons above accomplish the goals we set to accomplish.”

In all, five of the seven members of the condo board resigned in a two-week period, according to the minutes of the board’s meeting on Oct. 3, 2019.

The minutes did not explain why the other members resigned. Ms. Goldstein and the other members have not responded to requests for comment.

“People were quitting, and there were new people, and there was all kinds of stuff that was going on that was not pleasant,” said Max Friedman, an earlier member of the board. “I guess part of it was because of the project. There might have been personalities involved. There was all kinds of ugly stuff.”

Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”

Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”

Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”

Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.

Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.

Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.

Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.

Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.

Also killed in the collapse was Magaly Elena Delgado, 80.

People prayed at the Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Fla., on Thursday. Members of the community were reported missing in the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium.
Credit…Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Rabbi Daniel Hadar, the head rabbi of Temple Moses Sephardic Congregation of Florida, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach, has spent the past week offering comfort and support to the anguished members of his community with family members who remain unaccounted for in the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse.

“People are looking for hope but bracing for the worst,” he said. “It’s almost like the whole community is in a state of shock and mourning.”

The rabbi has spent his days at the family reunification center, where relatives await word from the search-and-rescue effort. He has been to their homes and met with them over Zoom. Soon, he says, his role will inevitably shift toward helping families make funeral preparations, a ritual complicated by the heartbreaking circumstances. So far, only 20 bodies have been recovered from the pile of debris; as many as 128 people are missing.

“As Jews, we try to bury the dead as quickly as possible,” he said. “Practically, I think families are having an issue — if you find one family member and you don’t find the other one, are you doing separate burials, are you doing separate funerals?”

Rabbi Hadar added that Jewish families would have to decide whether to observe shiva — a seven-day mourning period — repeatedly for multiple members of the same family. “Those are going to be the discussions over the next several days, which is how do we grieve?”

Temple Moses, a congregation of more than 600 families, is among numerous synagogues within a few miles of the Champlain Towers South collapse site. Surfside, a town of just 5,600 people, is home to a large Jewish community, and several rabbis now find themselves playing a similar role.

A synagogue several blocks from the collapse, the Shul of Bal Harbour, has established a collections center for donations of food, clothing, and toiletries for survivors and victims’ families. A fund-raising campaign coordinated by local synagogues has raised $1.34 million from over 11,600 people.

“I don’t think there is another community like there is in Surfside in Miami-Dade County,” said Eli Tourgeman, who was mayor of Surfside in the early 1990s. “There is not a concentration of restaurants, of houses of worship, shops, that are very Jewish-oriented.”


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