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Rescuers remove body from rubble of partially collapsed building in Surfside

Tragedy in Surfside: At least 4 dead, 159 unaccounted for

SURFSIDE, Fla. – At least four people died and 159 remained unaccounted for after a condominium building partially collapsed early Thursday morning.

Officers and fire rescue personnel surrounded the L-shaped Champlain Towers South, at 8777 Collins Ave., in Miami-Dade County’s town of Surfside.

Late Thursday night, crews were seen removing a body from the rubble.

“This is a tragedy without precedent in the United States of America,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “The devastation that I witnessed today is the likes of which I have never seen.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 120 people survived and rescue teams were searching for 159 people. She said a huge task force of people were working through the night to help the search-and-rescue teams.

“It’s a dark and tragic day,” Sen. Marco Rubio said. “From it, we continue to pray for some miracles, and we are inspired by the men and women, the heroes, who are out there right now risking their lives to hopefully rescue people.”

Levine Cava and Gov. Ron DeSantis both signed emergency orders. Wasserman Schultz said this will allow the federal government to step in and help local authorities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be stepping in.

Levine Cava said the 12-story building was built in 1981. It had more than 130 units and 55 collapsed.

Groups of 10 to 12 from the Urban Search and Rescue Team are looking for any air pockets in hopes of finding anyone who is trapped. A group was in the flooded parking garage with equipment to break through concrete.

“I can tell you that they’re in there. They have the dogs, have the equipment coming, and they’re going to work through the night,” Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said.

Authorities said the rescue operation is extremely dangerous as debris from the structure continues to fall.

“It’s a tragic day,” DeSantis said after traveling to South Florida following a scheduled event in Tampa.

A small fire broke out at the scene Thursday afternoon, but firefighters appeared to be getting it under control shortly before 2 p.m.

The building was in the process of doing work as part of its mandatory 40-year recertification, though an attorney for the condo said it’s too early to conclude that renovations to the roof that were underway can be connected to the collapse.

A side-by-side before and after photo of the building shows that it was shaped like an L before the collapse, but a portion of that L was sheared completely off.

While numerous agencies responded to the scene, the mayor said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is leading the efforts.

“Thank you so much to our brave, brave Fire Rescue workers,” Levine Cava said.

One man, Santos Mejia, said his wife, Janet Rodriguez, 55, was staying at the condominium building with a 95-year-old woman she is caring for when the collapse occurred around 1:30 a.m.

He said she immediately called him after the collapse and told him she heard an earthquake, but they soon learned the building had partially collapsed in the back on the oceanside.

The building’s pool and parking garage were on the side of the building that collapsed.

Mejia said his wife and the elderly woman are both OK, but they could have fallen off the side of the building had they been closer to the balcony.

“The whole building shook like an earthquake. I opened my sliding glass and I saw a plume of dust and then I opened the door and I saw that the building had pancaked in the back,” a woman who lives on the ninth floor of the building said.

Another resident told Local 10 News that he heard a series of bangs. He said he grabbed his wife and they saw dust in hallway when they opened the door.

The couple ran to the parking garage, but the pipes had burst and it was flooded.

The man said he eventually called out to firefighters, who rescued him and his wife via a ladder truck.

Local 10 News was at the scene just before 5:30 a.m. as one person was being rescued from their balcony.

[ALSO SEE: Loved ones name, show photos of those they say are missing]

One woman asked Local 10 News photojournalist Bryan Murphy to zoom into her sixth-floor unit to check whether any of her relatives were inside. No one was visible inside the unit, but it’s unclear whether the woman has been reunited with her loved ones.

More than 80 MDFR units, including Technical Rescue Teams, were at the scene with assistance from municipal fire departments, including some from Broward County. There are more than 100 units that responded in all.

A photo taken from the scene shows a boy being pulled from the rubble by a firefighter. Authorities said another person was also pulled from the rubble.

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Crews set up a triage area before some people were transported to hospitals. They used ladder trucks to rescue residents from balconies and have cleared all units that were not damaged in the collapse.

As people began waking up, a crowd began gathering on the sand.

The power has been cut off to the building and all residents from the undamaged units were evacuated.

Those who were rescued or are in the area are being kept away from the building to prevent any injuries from falling debris and to prevent further collapse.

The cause of the collapse remains unclear, however people in the area told Local 10 News that work was being done on the roof of the building with the use of heavy equipment.

Officials say they fear there will be many casualties after a portion of the Champlain Towers South building “pancaked” when it collapsed early Thursday morning.
Officials say they fear there will be many casualties after a portion of the Champlain Towers South building “pancaked” when it collapsed early Thursday morning.

Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett confirmed roof work was being done at the building, but said roof work is constantly being done on buildings and doesn’t believe that is a reason for the collapse.

He said he is sure an application must have been completed before the work started and that an inspection would have been made beforehand.

The mayor said he can’t imagine any reason for the tragedy other than if a sinkhole occurred or someone pulled the supports out of the building.

Former Surfside Vice Mayor Barry Cohen, however, said he believed the roof work and other factors, like a new high rise being constructed next door, may have compromised the integrity of the building.

[ALSO SEE: Surveillance video captures eerie moments as part of Surfside condo crashes down]

Regardless, engineers were called in to inspect the building and determine what exactly happened.

Burkett confirmed 10 people were treated for injuries at the scene and two were taken to hospitals, one of whom died on the way.

He said he was aware of 15 families that walked out of the building on their own. A total of 35 people were rescued from the building.

Officials fear there will be many casualties since the building “pancaked” during the collapse.

Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael Moser commended Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and other fire departments that quickly responded to the scene, saying first responders need to be “quick on their toes” and “thinking far into the future” during catastrophic situations like these.

He said MDFR quickly called in support services, including K9s and drones to assist in the search.

First responders told Local 10 News that the search and rescue operation could take perhaps up to a week to complete, if not more.

Levine Cava later confirmed on Twitter that she had spoken with President Joe Biden and said he “offered the full support of the federal gov. to help our community during this difficult time.”

“In addition, Chief of Staff Ron Klain spoke with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in whose district the building is located,” White House spokesperson Ike Hajinazarian said in a statement. “All of our hearts go out to the family and friends who have lost their beloved during this horrific incident, as well as to the families who wait in anguish as search-and-rescue teams assess and work through the devastation. In coordination with FEMA, the White House is continuing to monitor the situation and we send our gratitude to the heroic first responders working tirelessly to save lives today.”

Authorities say southbound traffic is being diverted west on 96th Street, while northbound traffic is being diverted at 85th Street and Collins Avenue.

The American Red Cross is assisting survivors, who will be placed in hotels for the time being.

A family reunification center has been set up for anyone looking for unaccounted or missing relatives at a community center at 9301 Collins Ave.

Those searching for their loved ones or to report that they have been located are asked to call 305-614-1819. An emergency information hotline has also been created -- 305-993-1071.

Several South Florida foundations have banded together to create a fund to assist those affected by the building collapse. Click here to learn more about how you can donate to the cause.


About the Authors:

Amanda Batchelor is the managing editor for Local10.com.

Madeleine Wright is a general assignment reporter for Local 10 News. She joined the team in March 2017.