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Surfside News: More Bodies Found in Imposing Wreckage of Collapsed Condo

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Miami-Dade Officials Find More Victims in Condo Collapse

Officials in Surfside, Fla., found four additional bodies on Tuesday, raising the confirmed death toll to 36 after heavy winds and lightning strikes from an approaching tropical storm halted rescue efforts for two hours.

“Throughout the team’s ongoing hard work today, despite the rain and the other adverse conditions, we have recovered four additional victims. The number of confirmed deaths is now 36, with 29 of those identified.” “I have drafted a letter in conjunction with our staff, which will go out as soon as tomorrow, advising all of our oceanfront condo boards and building owners of the steps our expert engineer and building official believed should be taken as a minimum stopgap measure to provide residents with a basic level of confidence that their building is not obviously unsafe.” “Our focus right now is recovering family members. That’s where we’re at right now. Our homicide detectives are embedded with the fire rescue personnel who are working hard. We’re recovering victims, making notifications to the family. At the same time, we’re collecting evidence with our partners, with NIST. Our state attorney’s office is embedded with us as well. But right now we’re in a search and rescue mode. It’s an active investigation. And that’s — and we’re focused right now. Our primary goal right now is to bring closure to the families.”

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Officials in Surfside, Fla., found four additional bodies on Tuesday, raising the confirmed death toll to 36 after heavy winds and lightning strikes from an approaching tropical storm halted rescue efforts for two hours.CreditCredit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Though heavy winds and lightning strikes from an approaching tropical storm paused rescue efforts for two hours on Tuesday afternoon, rescue workers at the site of the collapsed condominium building in Surfside, Fla., recovered four additional bodies, raising the confirmed death toll to 36, officials said.

The grim and increasingly hopeless search for survivors continued after the demolition of the unstable remainder of the building over the holiday weekend allowed rescuers to reach new parts of the structure.

“Right now we’re in a search-and-rescue mode,” Director Alfredo Ramirez III of the Miami-Dade Police Department said at a news conference on Tuesday evening, adding, “Our primary goal right now is to bring closure to the families.”

The approach of Hurricane Elsa complicated search efforts, forcing search-and-rescue teams to pause their efforts, according to Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County. A meteorologist is embedded with workers “right there on the mound,” Ms. Levine Cava told reporters on Tuesday evening, “to provide any weather updates to make sure that they are safe.”

Still, crews made progress, searching parts of the site that had been unreachable before the demolition on Sunday night. They found 12 more bodies on Monday and Tuesday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 36. More than 100 residents remain missing in the wake of the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24.

Officials also released on Tuesday the names of three additional victims: Nancy Kress Levin, 76; her son Jay Kleiman, 52; and Francis Fernandez Plasencia, 67. In 2019, Ms. Levin, had resigned her position as vice president of the condo board, along with the board’s president, Anette Goldstein, saying they were frustrated by the objections that kept derailing progress on repairs to the building.

Although emergency teams have now searched the upper layers of all of the collapse site, officials said they had not given up on the possibility of finding survivors. But the crews have not detected any signs of life while searching the building, Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t come across any.”

Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside said officials were responding to inquiries from large buildings in town regarding the collapse, and advising them that they should undertake a full structural review of their systems. Officials were also examining Champlain Towers North, a sister site of the collapsed condo that was built by the same developer.

“We have deep concerns about that building, given that we don’t know what happened” at Champlain South, Mr. Burkett said. Some residents of Champlain North had taken authorities up on their offer of alternative housing, he said.

Officials said they were no closer to determining the cause of the collapse and remained focused on search efforts. “The whole world wants to know what happened here,” Ms. Levine Cava acknowledged, but she would not provide a timeline for the investigation.

“As you all know, we were focused squarely on search and rescue while preserving all evidence,” she said, adding, “I look forward to learning the truth, as do we all.”

Despite earlier warnings that Elsa could bring tropical-storm-force winds to the Miami area on Tuesday, meteorologists revised their forecasts, saying Surfside would likely be spared the worst of the storm.

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After causing heavy rain and flooding in Cuba, Tropical Storm Elsa passed near the Florida Keys and was expected to approach hurricane strength before making landfall early Wednesday.CreditCredit…Rob O’Neal/The Key West Citizen, via Associated Press

Rescue crews in Surfside, Fla., continued their search on Tuesday even as Tropical Storm Elsa prompted the National Weather Service to issue a tornado watch for all of South Florida.

Forecasts showed the site of the condo collapse north of Miami Beach avoiding the worst impacts of the storm, which brought drenching rain and near hurricane-force winds to the Florida Keys.

Still, the search for victims was complicated by Elsa’s approach on Tuesday, with large cranes hampered in removing heavy debris and rescue crews forced to temporarily pause their efforts because of nearby lightning strikes.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County told reporters that officials expected “occasional gusts” and rainfall throughout Tuesday, and would be monitoring the situation.

Concern over the storm’s potential impact helped drive officials to demolish the half of Champlain Towers South that had remained standing on Sunday night. The search effort had been halted for much of the weekend amid growing worries about the building’s stability as the storm approached, but it resumed on Monday, with eight more bodies recovered from the rubble by Tuesday morning.

Downpours and winds of up to 29 miles per hour could be felt in the Miami area on Tuesday, the Weather Service said. And significant winds and storm surge were expected on portions of Florida’s Gulf Coast, prompting the service to issue hurricane warnings.

The storm, which strengthened early Tuesday over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is expected to travel up the state’s western coastline and make landfall as a hurricane, likely somewhere north of Tampa, on Wednesday morning.

Elsa, which crossed Cuba on Monday, has been linked to the deaths of at least three people in the Caribbean.

A view from Collins Avenue of the crumpled remains of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.
Credit…Marco Bello/Reuters

Under the gray skies of Surfside, Fla., uneasy storm winds blew through what was left of the Champlain Towers South as officials opened the site of a shocking condo collapse for the first time to a limited glimpse by the public.

The ruins of the condominium seemed enormous, a towering heap of floor tiles, broken walls, tossed air-conditioning units and jagged metal rods reaching out like claws — at least two stories high overall, too daunting for anyone to make sense of what it once encompassed.

But the wreckage also looked very small compared with the 13-story building that once stood, in stately brown and beige, its balconies jutting out over Collins Avenue on one side and a sandy Atlantic beach on the other. How could 135 units — 135 homes — and a still-unknown number of lives have been reduced to this, a damp and dusty pile of concrete and metal where a community once thrived?

With 36 people confirmed dead and 109 people still unaccounted for, workers at the rear of the site toiled on through the approach of Hurricane Elsa, which is expected to make landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning. The Miami Beach area has been spared the worst of the storm, but more than 200 workers have endured crushing heat and rolling thunderstorms and lighting that forced them to pause their search at times.

Much of the search has been happening behind the wall of rubble, unseen from where reporters stood on the street.

The authorities allowed reporters on Tuesday evening to get a little closer to the remains of the condo complex that partially collapsed on June 24; the rest was demolished on Sunday because of safety concerns. The new vantage point offered a sobering look of the rescue site from across the street, a spot where not long ago a visitor might have walked past the entrance sign, up the steps and into the building’s lobby. Heavy machinery trawled at the back of the site, digging through the rubble in a search-and-rescue effort that has, day after heartbreaking day, yielded no signs of life.

Standing near the wreckage, it was not difficult to see why.

What had once been part of the roof of the residential tower at 8777 Collins Avenue was almost at street level, a dark splintered slab identifiable by a ventilation or exhaust fixture still in one piece, slanted atop the pile like a top hat. Debris poked out at every possible angle. Twisted metal knotted together like tree branches. Even the planters on the sidewalk were cracked, a few surviving palm trees withering away.

Almost everything was the same shade of brownish gray.

Nearer the front, emergency workers in bright hard hats and neon vests watched from balconies in the two neighboring buildings, one to the north and one to the south. On the street, two rescuers left and returned with a bite to eat. A small and fluffy crisis response dog stood nearby with its handler, apparently waiting to comfort workers as needed.

Motors rumbled from fire trucks, diggers and generators, the sound of a desperate search that has now gone on for nearly 12 days.

On the site of the tennis courts where residents once played, now stood site workers’ tents.

On the corner there was a sign, inviting neighbors to a relic of what seemed like another era, the weekly Surfside farmers’ market.

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Footage from over the weekend illustrated the ongoing investigation efforts from search-and-rescue teams into the missing residents of the Surfside Condominium, which collapsed more than a week ago.CreditCredit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Although officials continue to say that more than 100 people remain unaccounted for after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., the ultimate death toll could end up significantly lower.

Investigators had confirmed that about 70 out of the 113 people who remain unaccounted for were in the building when it partially crumbled, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on Tuesday morning.

Detectives have not, however, been able to speak to family members of the others on the list to be certain that their loved ones are, in fact, missing, the mayor said.

Ms. Levine Cava said the police received many tips naming residents or visitors who might have been in the building, but some of those tips came anonymously, or from distant relatives or acquaintances in other countries who either did not leave contact numbers or have not been reachable for follow-up inquiries.

That has left detectives scouring databases and doing other research to try to find out who exactly was in the building and who wasn’t.

Ms. Levine Cava urged families of potential victims to reach out to the Miami-Dade Police Department. “We want to confirm every single account,” she said.

As of Tuesday evening, officials had recovered 36 bodies from the rubble.

Stacie Dawn 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.

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.

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.

Also killed in the collapse were Ingrid Ainsworth, 66, and Tzvi Ainsworth, 68; Claudio Bonnefoy, 85, and Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69; Graciela Cattarossi, 48; Magaly Elena Delgado, 80; Bonnie Epstein, 56, and David Epstein, 58; Gonzalo Torre, 81; Nancy Kress Levin, 76, and Jay Kleiman, 52; Francis Fernandez Plasencia, 67; and the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter, whom the authorities declined to name.

Champlain Towers North, second from right, among other high-rise condominiums in Surfside, Fla. Potential condo buyers are asking questions about the structural safety of units for sale following the collapse of its sister building, Champlain Towers South.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

The partial collapse on June 24 of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., has plunged older beachside condos and high-rise buildings like it into a swirl of uncertainty. Local government officials and condo associations are rushing inspections, some of them long overdue. Insurance companies are demanding proof that aging buildings have been evaluated or are threatening to cut off coverage.

And real estate agents across the region are bracing for how the disaster might ripple through an otherwise scorching housing market.

“No one ever asked about a 40-year recertification before,” Ines Hegedus-Garcia, a real estate agent with Avanti Way Realty in South Florida, said of the process of assessing the structural condition of buildings constructed decades ago. “Nobody ever did that, but buyers are now asking for that.”

Cordelia Anderson, a Miami real estate agent, said five clients who had been looking at units in older condo buildings asked for hefty discounts after the collapse, or abandoned the coast altogether and instead wanted to search farther inland.

Objects at a memorial site in Surfside, Fla., on Monday.
Credit…Marco Bello/Reuters

For both survivors and victims’ family members, the best chance of recovering any personal belongings from the catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South is now in the hands of an online system.

As search teams comb through the rubble in Surfside, Fla., they are finding remnants of the condo residents’ lives — their everyday items, important documents and treasured keepsakes.

When they come across an item that can be retrieved, including “any type of family heirlooms,” those possessions are logged by homicide detectives, according to the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, Alfredo Ramirez III.

“For our survivors or family members, we have a system in place, through our state partners, where they are able to log in and put down property that they may be looking for,” Mr. Ramirez said at a Sunday morning news conference.

After homicide detectives catalog the items, they are then sent to personnel at the property and evidence bureau, according to Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesman for the Police Department. “We’re finding all kinds of personal items you could imagine coming out of someone’s home,” he said. “We’re finding photos, postcards. First responders are finding drawings children made for their parents.”

But there’s no exact timeline for when people can expect to reclaim those items. “You have to understand that some people have wills or estates — this is not as easy as a lost and found,” Mr. Zabaleta said. “It’s stuff that we have to make sure we’re giving back without breaking any laws.”

For Magaly Ramsey, whose mother, Magaly Delgado, lived in Apartment 911, the prospect of using the online system has been strange.

“It’s hard for family members to do that,” Ms. Ramsey said. “I’m not that sort of person who’s like, ‘Let me make sure I know what jewelry my mom has.’”

She said officials told victims’ families that they were using a GPS system to determine the general vicinity of each apartment, and putting any belongings found in that area into bins for the families.

Ms. Ramsey said she would like to have her mother’s possessions returned to her at some point, but had not yet been willing to log into the online system offered by the authorities.

“I haven’t gone there mentally,” Ms. Ramsey said. “My priority is putting my mom to rest. It’s not grabbing her goods.”

Two members of an Israeli rescue team working with American crews in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo last month.
Credit…Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

As rescue crews continue to comb through the remains of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex near Miami, federal officials have brought in support from across the globe — including an elite team of Israeli search-and-rescue officers trained to respond to building collapses.

Along with urban search-and-rescue task forces activated from across the country and a similar elite team from Mexico, more than a dozen Israeli officers have been working to dig through the rubble left from the collapse and provide emotional support to the families waiting in agonizing limbo for word of their loved ones.

In interviews, four of the officers, their combat boots still coated in gray dust from the rubble, described an emotional process to help confront what they said was the most complicated search-and-rescue operation they have been a part of. After arriving June 27 and going straight to the site, they have spent hours interviewing more than 100 families and condo employees to help construct a map of the towers.

The unit, sent by the Israel Defense Forces, helped construct 3-D models of the apartments, in part to help guide the rescue teams through the rubble. One model resembled a game of Tetris: different-colored and shaped blocks stacked together to form apartment units, with rescuers focusing on the bedrooms.

“It’s a very rare disaster,” said Yuval Klein, 42, an officer with the rescue unit. “It’s just a mountain of concrete, broken down into small pieces, and bits and scraps of personal items of a house, you know? Suitcases, clothes, books, pages, everything, everything a person has in his house.”

Mr. Klein is among the officers who have not only visited the rubble, but have had to press families and apartment staff for every minute detail about the apartment and their loved ones: Where was the bed located? What were items specific to the apartment, and where were they? Which direction did they sleep? What color was the carpet?

“It’s a story — each house as a story, and that’s what you see inside the rubble,” said Tal Levy Diamenshtien, who works with Mr. Klein. “You see stories. You see dolls. You see parts of life.”

Members of the Israeli team have also briefed the families repeatedly, and have been among the officials available to answer questions and comfort those who are grieving.

The officials said they were impressed by the scope of manpower and technology sent to the site. The weather conditions in Florida — with intense heat and thunderstorms that took officers by surprise — have only exacerbated the complexities.

“You see the great power of this nation,” said Golan Vach, the commander of the Israeli National Rescue Unit. He described watching rescuers using shirts from their fire departments to help cover victims they had found, in order to protect the bodies as they recovered them from the rubble.

“When you see the United States flag and the department flag — it means a lot. It means there’s a contract between you citizens and us,” he added. “If something happens, we’ll be there for you. I think the families need to know that.”

North Miami Beach officials had tried for years to bring a 10-story condo building, Crestview Towers, into compliance. It was evacuated on Friday.
Credit…Giulia Heyward/The New York Times

Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation. But after parts of Champlain Towers South tumbled down on June 24, killing at least 36 people and leaving 109 unaccounted for, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments, and sometimes not at all.

Miami-Dade County officials said last week that they were prioritizing reviews of 24 multistory buildings that either had failed major structural or electrical inspections required after 40 years or had not submitted the reports in the first place. But the county’s own records show that 17 of those cases had been open for a year or more. Two cases were against properties owned by the county itself. The oldest case had sat unresolved since 2008.

The city of North Miami Beach had tried and failed for years to bring a 10-story condo building within its borders, Crestview Towers, into compliance with the 40-year recertification requirements. When the building’s condo association finally submitted the required paperwork last week, about nine years late, it documented critical safety concerns, a city spokesman said. Officials evacuated the building on Friday.

Meanwhile, the same local governments were pursuing a haphazard approach to identifying other potentially unsafe buildings across the region, with the age and height criteria that would prompt added scrutiny varying from one place to the next. At least one local government, the village of Key Biscayne, was opting to conduct no extra inspections at all, an official there said.

Even if building auditors focus only on towers of 10 stories or more that were built in the 1970s and 1980s, the task would still be daunting. An analysis of property records by The New York Times shows that at least 270 such buildings dot the skylines of Miami-Dade County’s cities, villages and towns, with dozens more in the county’s unincorporated reaches.

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