Death toll climbs to nine as search for survivors goes on in collapsed Florida condo building

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — The death toll has climbed to nine from the partial collapse of a 12-story condominium building in Surfside, Florida, as a massive search and rescue mission continued into its fourth day on Sunday, officials said.

Four more bodies were recovered overnight from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium that buckled and gave way into a pancaking catastrophe around 1:30 a.m. on Thursday as many residents were asleep, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Sunday morning. More than 150 people remain unaccounted for.

Cava said additional human remains have also been recovered and DNA testing will be required to identify those remains.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers are still hoping to find survivors waiting to be saved in crevices and voids in the pile of concrete, twisted metal and personal belongings.

“Hope. That’s what I’m focused on,” Cominsky said. “We’re going to continue moving and searching as hard as we can and for as long as we can, until we have to make that decision.”

No survivors have been discovered in the wreckage of the building since early Thursday morning when Stacie Fang, 54, and her 15-year-old son were pulled from the debris alive, Cava said. Fang later died at a hospital.

About 130 residents of the 40-year-old building have been accounted for.

Just after 2 p.m. on Sunday, relatives of those still unaccounted for boarded several city transit buses at a hotel where a family reunification center has been established, and were escorted by police to an area near the site of the collapsed building to privately pray and hold vigils for their missing loved ones.

The grim news on Sunday came after desperate loved ones of people missing and feared buried in the rubble confronted officials at a private briefing Saturday night, telling them “you are not doing enough.”

“Imagine if your children were in there,” one woman told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other government officials at the meeting, according to a cellphone video obtained by ABC News.

“I know you’re doing everything you can, but it’s not enough,” the anguished woman added. “You gave us a promise and you’re not fulfilling it, and you can fulfill it. My daughter is dying.”

Mayor Cava said firefighters managed to contain an out-of-control blaze that had been burning deep in the rubble, hampering rescue efforts. She said the fire was contained around noon on Saturday.

She also said emergency teams have cut a 125-foot long, 20-foot wide and 40-foot deep trench through the rubble to help enhance the search.

DeSantis cautioned that “a lot of major debris” is soon going to be removed from the site and moved to a giant warehouse.

“The debris that gets out does have forensic value and so that’s going to be parsed once it’s taken,” DeSantis said.

Cava said six to eight rescue squads have been sifting through the debris searching for survivors and human remains around the clock and that hundreds of other search-and-rescue team members are on standby to replace them once they leave the pile.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the Israeli Homefront Command Team and a rescue unit from Mexico have also joined the search.

Burkett said during a meeting Sunday with loved ones of those still unaccounted for, that one of the relatives asked if the Israeli team thought that the Miami-Dade rescuers “had been doing the right thing.”

“The commander from the Israeli team did not hesitate and turned around and said, ‘They’ve been doing exactly the right thing,'” Burkett said.

Burkett added that residents of the tower adjacent to the one that collapsed have been evacuated and put up in hotels. He said residents of the nearby Champlain Towers South building have also been given the choice to evacuate.

Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also in Surfside, assisting residents of the complex with aid and temporary housing.

“On behalf of the president, our hearts go out to all of the families and the loved ones who have been affected by this really tragic incident,” Creswell said.

Creswell also praised the Miami-Dade community for rallying together in the face of the tragedy.

“The number of volunteers that have shown up, the number of nonprofit organizations, community members have really all come together to help this community in a time of great need,” Creswell said. “FEMA is here to assist with that. We are here to assist with any resources that might be needed as this response continues and we move into recovery efforts.”

The cause of the collapse is under investigation. The building had been undergoing renovations and roof work at the time of the collapse, officials said.

A 2018 Structural Field Survey report released by the city of Surfside found major structural damage to concrete structural slabs and failed waterproofing in parts of the tower.

Jose Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, promised on Sunday that officials will look at what happened in “every single way.”

“I’m very serious when I’m saying that this is something that we now have to determine,” Diaz told ABC News. “There’s a lot of older buildings (in Miami-Dade), and we’ve got to see what actually took place.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.