Search for 145 continues in Surfside

Building collapse death toll remains unchanged at 18; Biden meets with victims’ families and state and local officials

SURFSIDE, Fla. – The search for 145 people who remained unaccounted for Thursday night continued at the site of the Surfside building collapse after a nearly 15-hour pause over safety concerns.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the teams returned to work at 4:45 p.m. They were on the eighth night of the search. Rescuers tunneled through a compact mountain of pancaked concrete where they hope to find survivors. There was intermittent rain and the risk of spontaneous fires.

Related story: Video shows grim reality of what rescuers see in Surfside rubble

The official death toll was at 18 when President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited the oceanside town. Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett said Biden was “very engaged.” Levine Cava said Biden met with the victims’ families for about three hours.

“They are going through hell,” Biden said, and he added, “The families are very realistic ... At a minimum, they want to recover the bodies.”

The president spent close to three hours with families affected by the tragedy and said the federal government will continue to help the rescue and recovery efforts.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Biden’s experience with grief helped him to connect with those who are suffering. During his speech to the nation from Surfside, Biden said the federal government was going to pay for 100% of the cost of the search-and-rescue operation during the first 30 days.

“There is also the need, in addition to state and local assistance, to determine the cost of this collapse, and the adjacent buildings, how safe they are ... We are committed not only to recover but to restore the safety across the board,” Biden said.

Related story: Biden spends emotional day in Surfside: ‘Tell me what you need’

Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Biden’s administration committed $20.5 million to help cover the costs of logistical operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is involved in the search mission and the assessment of the safety of the site.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue halted the search-and-rescue operation at Champlain Towers South at 2:11 a.m., Thursday. Hundreds had worked for seven days and seven nights after the northeastern sections of the 12-story building collapsed shortly before 2 a.m., June 24th.

At the improvised headquarters of the operation, a color-coded grid system indicated where the bedrooms and living rooms fell down. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Comisky said the teams had returned to work on three grids.

Levine Cava said structural engineers are planning for the possibility of the demolition of the southern part of the crippled Champlain Towers South. FEMA engineers are part of the planning process and they are using sensors to monitor its stability to help protect rescuers and possible survivors.

Related story: MDFR chief explains why search operation in Surfside came to a halt

Cominsky said stability issues, and not the president’s visit, were to blame for the decision to pause the operation. His concerns included 6-12 inches of movement in a large column that is hanging from the structure. There was movement in the concrete floor slab and cracks that threatened the garage area.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology also has a team at work in Surfside. The federal agency investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 collapse of the two main towers of the World Trade Center complex. NIST Director James Olthoff said the team was there on a fact-finding mission and not on a fault-finding technical investigation, which will possibly take years.

During the news conference on Thursday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis said officials were monitoring the forecast of Tropical Storm Elsa, which was moving toward the Caribbean. Levine Cava said during the afternoon conference that there were contingency plans in the event the storm system affected Surfside.

The fast-moving storm has the potential of causing severe weather in Surfside on Tuesday morning, but meteorologists at the Local 10 News Weather Center said the cone of concern is large and there is still time for the forecast to change.

Related story: Dispatch calls: ‘She’s stuck in between 2 beds,’ but responders couldn’t get to Surfside victim

Biden said some of the relatives of the victims in Surfside were concerned about the frequency of tropical storms and global warming. Biden also praised Florida Democrats and Republicans for working together. DeSantis said he was grateful to Biden for being quick to recognize the severity of the tragedy.

“You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy,” DeSantis said during a roundtable with Biden in Surfside. “When we’re dealing with FEMA, we’re literally getting requests routed from local to state to federal in no time.”

Related story: Engineers plan to demolish what is left standing of Champlain South

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About the Authors:

Roy Ramos joined the Local 10 News team in 2018. Roy is a South Florida native who grew up in Florida City. He attended Christopher Columbus High School, Homestead Senior High School and graduated from St. Thomas University.

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.