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Families cling to hope as condo collapse toll rises to 9

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By AP
Rescue workers search in the rubble for survivors at the Champlain Towers South condominium, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami.
Rescue workers search in the rubble for survivors at the Champlain Towers South condominium, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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The death toll from the collapse of a Florida beachfront condo building has risen to nine as search-and-rescue efforts continue, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Sunday.

One person died in the hospital, and workers pulled four more bodies from the wreckage, the mayor said.

Scores of rescue workers remained on the massive pile of rubble, working to find survivors among the more than 150 people who remain unaccounted for. Four of the dead have been identified and next of kin notified, the mayor said.

Separately, a video posted online showed an official briefing families of missing loved ones. When he said they had found remains among the rubble, people began sobbing.

Throughout the day, rescue workers scoured the mountain of debris with trained dogs and sonar, searching for any survivors. “Our top priority continues to be search and rescue and saving any lives that we can,” the mayor said.

But crews had to fight flames in the debris during the day. At one point Saturday, a fire hose blasted one of the lower floors on the north side of the tower as white smoke or steam streamed out. A bitter, sulfur-like smell hung in the air.

“The stench is very thick,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

A crane removed pieces of debris from the more than 30-foot pile in the city of Surfside, and scores of rescuers used big machines, small buckets, drones, microphones and their own hands to pick through the rubble.

For many with missing loved ones, the wait was agonising. The atmosphere was tense inside a hotel ballroom where around 200 family members were briefed, two people present told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

The two said families frustrated with the slow pace of recovery efforts had demanded permission to go to the scene and attempt a collective shout — an attempt as much to find survivors as a cathartic farewell to those who had died.

Among those awaiting word of loved ones was Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, lived on the sixth floor. Speaking beside her siblings, she said Saturday that “we’re trying to hold it together.”

“I know my mom is a fighter. I know she loves us. I know she doesn’t want to give up. So, you know, it’s day three, so it’s hard,” Spiegel said.

President Joe Biden said via Twitter that he had spoken with DeSantis on Friday to offer assistance as needed.

“My heart is with the community of Surfside as they grieve their lost loved ones and wait anxiously as search and rescue efforts continue,” Biden tweeted.

Authorities announced they were beginning an audit of buildings nearing their 40-year review — like the fallen Champlain Towers South — to make sure they’re safe. The mayor asked other cities in the county to join the building review and said there will be state and federal funding to help.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have joined local and state authorities at the site, DeSantis said. He added a nearby “sister building” of the collapsed tower is also being looked at because it was built at the same time and with the same designer.

Late Saturday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said that a city official had led a cursory review of the nearby Champlain Towers North and Champlain Towers East buildings.

“They didn’t find anything out of the ordinary,” he said.

He emphasised the priority now was on rescuing anyone still alive.

“What we’re doing now is we’re saving lives and we’re bringing people out of the rubble. What we’re going to do in the next phase, after we address support for the families, is we are going to do a very deep dive into why this building fell down,” Burkett said.

Burkett had said earlier he was working on a plan to temporarily relocate residents of the Champlain Towers North, which was constructed the same year and sits about 100 yards away from the collapsed building, and that FEMA has agreed to pay for lodging.

The mayor said he didn't plan to order residents to evacuate, but if he lived there, “I’d be gone.”

Surfside city staffers had also been gathering details about Champlain Towers East, which was built in a different style and apparently was built at a different time.

The news came after word of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building had “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below its pool deck that needed extensive repairs, part of a series of documents released by the city of Surfside.

While officials said no cause for the collapse early Thursday has been determined, DeSantis said a “definitive answer” was needed in a timely manner. Video showed the centre of the building appearing to tumble down first, followed by a section nearer to the beach.

The 2018 report was part of preliminary work by the engineering company conducting the building’s required inspections for a recertification due this year of the building’s structural integrity at 40 years. The condominium tower was built in 1981.

A federal agency specialising in disaster losses and structure failures is sending a half dozen scientists and engineers to collect direct information for determining whether to pursue a more thorough study.

The first team members arrived Friday, said Jason Averill, an official at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That agency also investigated the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and more recently, Hurricane Maria devastation in Puerto Rico, among other disasters.