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Home World Florida Death Toll Rises to 32 After Demolition Opens Avenues for Search

Florida Death Toll Rises to 32 After Demolition Opens Avenues for Search

Workers in Surfside, Fla., prepared to remove a victim from the condo collapse on Monday. 
Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The grim and increasingly hopeless search amid the rubble of the collapsed condominium building in Surfside, Fla., continued on Tuesday under windy, overcast skies after the demolition of the unstable remainder of the building over the holiday weekend allowed rescuers to access new parts of the structure.

The approach of Tropical Storm Elsa, whose strongest effects were expected to be felt in South Florida by midday on Tuesday, complicated search efforts, forcing crews to pause their efforts for 30 minutes at some points because of lightning strikes near the site. The wind also hampered the cranes removing heavy debris, officials said.

Still, crews made progress, searching parts of the site that had been unreachable before the demolition on Sunday night. They found eight more bodies on Monday and Tuesday morning, bringing the confirmed death toll to 32. More than 100 residents remain missing in the wake of the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24.

“Through the rain and through the wind, they have continued searching,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County told reporters on Tuesday morning.

“We know that waiting for news is unbearable,” she said of family members desperate for information about their loved ones. “The waiting, the waiting and the waiting is unbearable.”

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 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 that Surfside would likely be spared the worst of the storm.

Tornado warnings were issued for portions of Miami-Dade County late Monday, and heavy rain fell overnight. Forecasters predicted several inches of rain and winds of up to 29 miles per hour in and around Miami on Tuesday, as Elsa made its way up Florida’s western coast.

Residents filled sandbags in Seminole, Fla., on Monday before the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa.
Credit…Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press

The heaviest winds from Tropical Storm Elsa, which was beginning to drench the Florida Keys early Tuesday, were expected to hit South Florida around midday, according to the National Weather Service. But forecasts showed the site of the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., avoiding the worst impacts of the storm.

Still, the search for victims has been complicated by Elsa’s approach, with rescue crews forced to temporarily pause their efforts on Monday and Tuesday because of lightning.

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. Gusts in the Florida Keys could be significantly stronger.

The storm, which strengthened early Tuesday and could reach near hurricane strength, is expected to travel up Florida’s Gulf Coast and make landfall, likely somewhere north of Tampa, on Wednesday morning.

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

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, last month.
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.

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 Christina 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; and the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter, whom the authorities declined to name.

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 24 people and leaving 121 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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