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Miami-area condo collapse: 4 dead, 159 unaccounted for as search and rescue efforts continue

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At least four people are dead and 159 others unaccounted for as search and rescue efforts continue in the collapse of a 12-story beachfront condo in Surfside, Fla., a tight-knit community just north of Miami.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday morning, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that the death toll had risen to four and that 159 people were unaccounted for, up from 99 the day before.

“Unfortunately, this has been a tragic night,” Cava said.

Heavy machinery was brought in to assist in the search and rescue efforts, which she described as “very active” as they entered a second full day.

More than 130 firefighters are involved in the operation, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said. Most are using “light” equipment, including shovels and handsaws, as they sift through the wreckage.

Rescue workers pull a body from the rubble of a collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., Thursday. (Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
Rescue workers pull a body from the rubble of a collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., on Thursday. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Heavy rain showers have further complicated the already delicate task of searching the pile. Small fires have also broken out, briefly halting rescue efforts.

Aerial footage showed a line of rescue workers removing debris with red buckets from one area of the collapsed condo.

About 55 of the building’s 136 units collapsed at around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. Nearly three dozen people were pulled from the rubble by midmorning Thursday, but no new rescues were reported Friday.

Three more bodies were removed overnight, and Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said authorities were working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the victims.

Still, officials remained hopeful that some survivors might be found. “We still have hope that we will find people alive,” Cava said.

Rescue workers continue to hear sounds amid the rubble, but Jadallah cautioned that they were not necessarily human sounds, but could be twisting metal or shifting debris.

“Every time we hear a sound, we concentrate on those areas,” Jadallah said.

President Biden authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid in the rescue and recovery efforts, as well as to provide help for displaced families.

"It's a tough, tough time," he told reporters at the White House Friday before signing a bill designating the National Pulse Memorial at the site of the deadly 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting.

"There's so many people waiting," Biden said of the family members waiting for news of their loved ones in Surfside. "So our hearts go out to them, the people of Florida."

[Biden on Miami building collapse: ‘There’s nothing worse than having to wait and wonder’]

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who declared a state of emergency to make it easier for federal aid to be allocated, toured the site on Thursday.

“The TV doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “It is really, really traumatic to see the collapse of a massive structure like that.”

Biden spoke with DeSantis on Friday to offer his administration's full assistance.

"We really appreciate having the support of the president," DeSantis said. "And the people of Florida really appreciate the president and his administration stepping up to help people in need."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said his office is helping to get emergency visas approved for people from over a dozen countries who have close relatives among the missing.

An aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront condo that collapsed in Surfside, Fla., early Thursday.  (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Part of the collapsed 12-story oceanfront condo. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

It is unclear what caused the building, which was built in 1981, to collapse.

A researcher at Florida International University told USA Today that the building has been sinking into the wetlands at an alarming rate since the 1990s, according to a 2020 study conducted by the school. But it’s too soon to say whether that contributed to its collapse.

“This is a catastrophic failure of that building,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Thursday.

Barry Cohen, one of the building’s residents, told the Associated Press that he and his wife were asleep when he heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to a “gaping hole of rubble.” They were eventually rescued by firefighters using a cherry picker.

[Sea level rise due to climate change eyed as contributing factor in Miami building collapse]

Cohen, a former vice mayor of Surfside, said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building, after seeing cracks in the pavement by the pool.

Pamela Ramis, who lives across the street from the collapsed building, told Yahoo News that she was awakened at around 1:30 a.m., when her own building started to shake.

When she went outside, she saw the dust and debris and realized the building had collapsed.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Ramis said. “I thought something had exploded, a missile, I don’t know. I never imagined witnessing something like this, especially here in the U.S.”

A rescue worker searches the rubble for survivors with a dog after an apartment building partially collapsed in Surfside, Fla., Thursday. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)
A rescue worker searches the rubble for survivors with a dog after the collapse. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)

She said she could hear the search and rescue dogs barking shortly after they arrived.

“I think the dogs arrived around 5 a.m., and they were barking so much,” Ramis said. “Every time I heard a bark I felt anguish, because I knew they were probably finding bodies.”

Laura Ramirez-Feldman contributed reporting to this story.

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