July 26, 2021

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Search for Survivors in Surfside Condo Collapse Ends – The New York Times

3 min read

The elite crews searching the pulverized steel and smashed concrete that was the Champlain Towers South were shifting their focus to recovery efforts on Wednesday, acknowledging after nearly two weeks that survivors would not be found.

“Just based on the facts, there’s zero chance of survival,” Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue told families of the missing in a private briefing.

Despite no sign of survivors beyond the hours immediately after the building in Surfside, Fla., collapsed on June 24, officials had continuously pledged they would continuing searching as long as any chance of rescue remained. When the tally of the missing was first announced, it stood at 159, and the death toll at four. By Wednesday evening, the death toll had risen to 54, with as many as 86 people unaccounted for.

“We have all asked God for a miracle,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said at a news conference. “So the decision to transition from rescue to recovery is an extremely difficult one.”

The mission will officially transition to recovery at midnight, the mayor said.

At the private meeting with families, Chief Jadallah said search teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Israel were in agreement with the decision.

“We need to bring closure,” Chief Jadallah said.

At one point in the meeting, which The New York Times viewed a recording of, a woman thanked the officials for their work. The room erupted in applause.

Rescue teams had come from all over Florida, as well as Texas, Israel and Mexico, driven on by the anguish of onlooking family members who yelled out the names of their missing loved ones and stories of unlikely survivals from disasters past.

As impatience and frustration grew among family members of the missing, the teams on the pile continued looking for weeks, moving seven million pounds of concrete. The work was grueling and dangerous, with fires that burned in the rubble and the constant possibility of mounds of debris giving way. One rescuer fell 25 feet off the wreckage right in front of people who had been invited to watch the search.

On Sunday, the section of the building that had remained standing was demolished to guard against it toppling on its own and to help speed the search.

Sounds came from the rubble, not human voices but bangs and taps that were as unclear as they seemed auspicious. As rescuers dug through the pile, they found no one alive after the day of the collapse, only signs — wallets, old photos — of lives once lived. In some places, heavy machinery had to lift concrete slabs. In other places, rescuers sifted through concrete by hand.

Douglas Berdeaux and his wife, Linda Howard, of Daytona Beach, Fla., learned Wednesday morning that Ms. Howard’s sister, Elaine Sabino, 70, was officially named among the dead.

Later they were told that the rescue mission had been called off.

“I think it’s realistic, based on the fact that when they brought down the second portion of the building they were unable to find any voids that they thought people could be staying in,” Mr. Berdeaux said, adding that rescue officials told families they had hoped to find signs of life in a stairwell, or perhaps in a basement area in the gaps between cars.

Instead, he said, “There was nothing. It was all rubble, and crushed. Nothing.”

Mr. Berdeaux said the rescue teams had been “exemplary” in their efforts. “They left nothing to chance,” he said. “Nothing. Every opportunity that they could to do something, they took advantage of it, every single thing.”

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