The chances of finding survivors among the wreckage of the collapsed condo near Miami dropped as the rescue operation for more than 150 people entered its fifth day on Monday and rescuers navigated massive piles of debris to avoid making the conditions worse at the site.
While officials are still holding out hope that there might be more survivors, rescuers have begun trying to prepare relatives of the missing for the likelihood that their loved ones will not be found. No survivors have been pulled from the wreckage of the Champlain South Towers in Surfside, Fla., since Thursday, the day that half of the 13-story building collapsed. Since then, nine bodies and human remains have been found, of which five have been identified.
More than 300 emergency personnel, including teams from Israel and Mexico, are working around the clock, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been called in.
On Saturday, the teams began digging a massive trench, more than 125 feet long and four stories deep, to aid in finding the missing residents. The mayor of Surfside, Charles W. Burkett, said that rescuers needed to get lucky after days of fires at the site and flooding that had slowed their efforts.
Experts cautioned on Sunday that rescuers needed to move slowly and deliberately because they don’t want to make the site more dangerous for them or the missing people.
While officials held out hope they might still find survivors, that likelihood diminishes each day. Rescuers have yet to find natural voids in the rubble that would create inhabitable spaces, and they stopped hearing noises that could indicate the presence of survivors days ago.
Clearing the site and identifying remains, though, may take months, based on similar efforts at collapsed buildings, according to experts.
Relatives of the missing were taken on buses to the site on Sunday afternoon.
They boarded in front of the Grand Beach Hotel, which has served as a headquarters for those awaiting news of the missing.
The buses were escorted by police, and, as they arrived, acrid smoke lingered from fires beneath the rubble where search teams have been working since early Thursday. The relatives saw a crane lifting heavy chunks of the building and removing debris onto dump trunks.
While Floridians and viewers around the world were stunned by the suddenness of the collapse, there were warnings as early as 2018 of “major structural damage” that needed to be addressed, according to emails between a contractor and the condo’s board. In those emails, which the city of Surfside has begun releasing, the engineer urged the board to repair cracked columns and crumbling concrete and estimated it would cost about $9 million.
As of the collapse on Thursday, that work had not been done. But the board had taken out a loan of about $12 million to do the work.
Over the weekend, as officials tried to project publicly that they had not given up on finding survivors, rescuers privately updating relatives of the missing at a hotel reunification center tried to brace them for the worst.
“Just bear with me what I’m about to say,” an official said during a Saturday briefing that was captured in videos posted on social media. “It’s going to sink in. I understand it’s very emotional. It’s not necessarily that we’re finding victims. We’re finding human remains.”
Family members in the room could be heard sobbing, moaning and sniffling throughout the briefing as rescuers explained the details of the search and where human remains had been found.
“This is what’s been frustrating a lot of rescuers,” the official said. “As the building came down — the pancake collapse — what we’re recognizing is that we’re having a hard time finding some of the bodies that are still intact. Now what we’re finding, again, is human remains.”
When did it happen?
Survivors said they were jolted awake at about 1:30 a.m. on Thursday by fire alarms, falling debris and the feeling of the ground trembling.
How many people have died?
At least nine people were killed. The authorities fear many more fatalities.
How many are unaccounted for?
More than 150 people remained unaccounted for as of Sunday, officials said.
How many have been rescued?
About 35 people were rescued from the intact part of the building, and two were pulled from the rubble, said Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant fire chief.
How tall was the building?
The tower was 13 stories tall; about half of the 136 units collapsed.
When was it built?
It was constructed in 1981, according to county property records.
How many people live in Surfside, Fla.?
The town, just north of Miami Beach, has about 5,600 residents. It is a mostly residential community, with several multistory condominium buildings along Surfside Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The town has an Orthodox Jewish community and is also home to many retirees as well as immigrants from South America.
Amid the perilous search-and-rescue operation at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., some have asked why it has taken so long and whether there is any hope for those left inside.
Officials have assured the public that the local search team, which is has been sent to disasters around the world and is now working with Israeli and Mexican teams, was doing everything it could.
The dangers to the rescuers and missing residents are clear and dictate that the process must be slow and deliberate, experts and officials say.
Toxic chemicals and fire
“Inside of there, there is everything from toxic chemicals to fire, smoke, all kinds of other hazards,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who visited the site on Saturday, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “They have to be very careful. If they move one piece of rebar here, the rest of the pile could collapse somewhere else and either hurt the responders or hurt any survivors that might still be down there” he said.
The search continued after a fire that impeded visibility was brought under control.
Dogs, sonar and digging trenches
Experts are using dogs, sonar, cameras and have created trenches to navigate below the pile, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. One trench is 125 feet long, 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep.
Balancing safety and searching
Each building collapse and tragedy presents its own challenges, but experts learn from each one and use information to prevent others.
“It’s a very dangerous site still at this point,” said Joseph Pfeifer, former chief in charge of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness for the Fire Department of the City of New York, who was the first chief on the scene at the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “It’s that balance of safety and aggressively searching.”
Mr. Pfeifer, whose forthcoming book “Ordinary Heroes” is a memoir of the response to the attacks, has helped coordinate the response to a host of emergencies and disasters. He said that the teams were likely being extra cautious around the risks of any further collapse in the building, large bits of debris moving or getting injured by heavy equipment.
He added that Miami-Dade County had one of the country’s best search-and-rescue teams.
Timing is also important. It can be difficult to predict how long people will survive trapped in rubble. “The first couple days are crucial,” he said. “Each day, the chances of finding people are decreased. However, there is always hope. It’s important to keep the hope until the point where the reality has to be faced.”
Months of work
Timothy McConnell, the former New Orleans fire chief who led the response to the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel there in 2019, agreed. “It really takes strong-willed, strong-minded, strong-stomached people,” he said of the search-and-rescue teams.
The collapse of the New Orleans building, which was under construction, killed three people and injured dozens more in 2019. The search for survivors took days, and the process of clearing the rubble lasted over a year. The final person’s remains were not recovered until almost a year later.
One of the hardest parts, Mr. McConnell said, was the lack of closure for many families. “That’s hard,” he said.
He urged people who are losing patience with the process to remember that it is an extremely difficult undertaking. With the heavy debris, the chance of making things worse for survivors caught in the rubble, and the smoke complicating things, it can be precarious.
“What they don’t understand is, do you know how much that stuff weighs?” he said of the debris. “You might need 10 people to move one big piece of stone.” And some parts of the wreckage might be too precarious to dig into. “There were some areas that were unsafe for us to go in.”
Alfredo Lopez was racing to flee the collapsing Champlain Towers South on Thursday night when he recognized the woman immediately: She was a neighbor he often saw in the lobby. But this time she was in her pajamas, in shock, in pain — something was wrong with her knee — and unable to move.
“You can’t stay here,” he recalled saying to her, as he flipped her over his shoulder, and kept moving.
All he remembers now: plowing through some bushes, a gate, a block of concrete that was in the way. Somehow they ended up in the building’s pool area. Finally, they reached the beach. “For the life of me I don’t know how that happened,” he said.
The woman wanted to stop as soon as they got down to the beach, but Mr. Lopez told her they couldn’t stop. They rested when they reached a lounge chair in a neighboring building. “Thank God she’s light because I’m not a really strong guy,” said Mr. Lopez, 61, who runs an export business for heavy machinery. “But we made it out.”
Mr. Lopez is still struggling to process what happened when he awoke to two loud booms on Thursday night, looked out his apartment door and saw there nothing left of his hallway: no apartment to his left, no apartments in front of him — only an eerie silence and darkness.
He said the grief now “comes in spurts.”
“I’m doing fine and then — it’s overwhelming,” he said as he began to sob. “All I have are my PJs. I’m like I gotta buy some clothes. I got no money. I got no credit cards. I got no ID. Nothing.”