Families of more than 100 people still missing after a partial condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida, received sobering news Sunday, when the death toll reached nine and a fire chief said the situation looked dire.
It came the same day as CNN learned that a town building official told residents in November 2018 that the building was “in very good shape,” just days after receiving a report that warned of “major structural damage” to the tower involved in the collapse.
Rescue crews have been sifting through a mountain of rubble since Thursday morning, hoping to find those missing.
Four more of the dead have been identified, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing Sunday evening. A total of 134 people have been accounted for and 152 remain unaccounted for, she said.
The search crews had been stymied by a fire and the constant threat of further collapse where 55 of the 136 units of Champlain Towers South crashed to the ground.
The fire and smoke were under control as of Sunday, the mayor said, and the good weather allowed for the rescue teams to “move forward without some of the previous challenges that we have faced.”
“So we continue to sweep the mound, with our canines, using all of the technology available to us and machinery to lift the debris,” Levine Cava said.
“We have over 400 personnel strictly utilized for search and rescue,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said Sunday Top of Form.
“It’s a strategic process. We can’t have one squad working right on top of another. So we have to space out. We have to have different components. So at one time, I think we have over 200 people working on that debris site.”
Israel and Mexico are both helping with the search efforts, officials said.
Crews have cut a deep trench, 125 feet long and 40 feet deep, to help in the search efforts.
“This trench is very critical to the continuation of the search and rescue process,” the mayor said. “We continued all night to build that trench, and as a result of that, we were able to recover four additional bodies in the rubble, as well as additional human remains.”
When asked to describe the findings so far from the trench, the fire chief said they were “horrific” — partly because of a lack of voids, or spaces where people may be safely trapped.
“We don’t have the voids that we are hoping for, things that we are looking for,” Cominsky said. “We are still looking. So that’s what I mean by horrific. It’s just a difficult, difficult situation.”
But rescuers have not given up on finding survivors.
“We work hour after hour, hoping, because this is what we do — we save people,” Maggie Castro of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said Sunday.
“We want to bring the family members back to their families. And when we come up empty-handed, it’s difficult for us as well.”
While families hold on to hope for the dozens still missing, officials are trying to both support them and prepare them for the worst.
“We’ve also talked with them about the developments, for example with the body parts — finding body parts,” said Levine Cava, who was meeting with family members until about midnight Sunday morning.
“Obviously that’s a very sobering bit of news. And they are understanding that that is a possibility. So we are talking through what that means, how is the DNA evidence taken, what’s happening with the medical examiner, how they will be notified.”