“We just need a few more miracles”: Death toll hits 9 as fire blocks search in Miami collapse

Engineers and rescue teams at the site of the catastrophic apartment-building collapse in Miami dug a 125-foot-long trench under the huge, smouldering pile of debris on Saturday in a bid to control fires spreading deep in the pile and search for crevices where survivors and bodies might be found.

The trench, 40 feet deep and 20 feet wide, allowed the recovery of four bodies.

That brought to nine the confirmed death toll from the unexplained collapse of the northeast part of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South building in the Surfside district of Miami at around 1.20am local time on Thursday, 24 June.

152 people are still unaccounted for, officials told reporters Sunday evening, nearly 72 hours after the disaster occurred.  

The nine deceased comprise eight now recovered from the debris and one who died in hospital. Unidentified human remains have also been found.

Only four of the nine have been identified. Miami-Dade Police said they were Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83; Gladys Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky on Sunday described the rubble pile consisting of 12 pancaked floors as "extremely compacted", with no voids yet discovered, making progress very slow. Fires, smoke and heavy rain and wind further hampered efforts on Saturday. 

Rescue teams from Israel and Mexico have arrived to assist.

"Yesterday we suppressed the fire that had been going out of control, and the smoke that was prohibiting activities in certain parts of the pile. So around noon yesterday that was brought under control," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in the Sunday morning press briefing. 

She said six to eight squads are on the pile around the clock using sniffer dogs and listening equipment, with engineers on hand to stabilise it for rescuers.

"Infuse humanity rather than bureaucracy"

On Sunday officials granted families of those missing access to the site.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the evening press briefing it was critical "that we inject and infuse humanity rather than bureaucracy" into the process.

She said it was important to give families "the opportunity to come closer to that rubble pile and to be able to grieve in their own way, to be able to try to get some solace out of the closeness and proximity to their loved ones, to really hold on to hope or perhaps begin to face the enormity of the crisis that we’re dealing with here, to see up close the tunnels that have been burrowed by our incredible search and rescue teams".

She added: "This tragedy happened to people who were just living the normalcy of their lives, and the gut of this community was cut out in an instant."

The mayor of Surfside Charles Burkett said "a few more miracles" were needed.

"I’ve said all along, we don’t have a resource problem, we’ve only had a luck problem, but our luck has, at least with respect to the weather and the fires, has seemed to turn now. We just need a few more miracles each day, and we need to start pulling people out of that rubble and reuniting them with the families."

Officials said debris from the pile was being moved to a designated site to the east for forensic examination.

Big questions remain

Asked to comment on reports that a resident of the tower had been told the building was safe after a 2018 report by structural engineers warned of "major structural damage", Burkett said he wasn’t mayor at the time, but that he had asked the city clerk, the city attorney and the city manager to "dig out every piece of correspondence related to that building and put it on our website. So that’s happening right now. We’re just going to put it out there and let you all see it, and it’s going to be what it’s going to be."

He said Surfside’s buildings department had brought in an engineer to advise them on the collapse, and that the same engineer had advised on the damage to the Pentagon in the 9/11 attacks as well as the collapse of a new pedestrian bridge at Miami’s Florida International University in March 2018, which killed six people in cars below.

Asked whether people living in the collapsed building’s twin, Champlain Towers North, were entitled to assistance, Burkett said they were not because the building had not been condemned.

But he empathised, saying: "Quite frankly there are people who are afraid. It’s the same building, the same plans, the same floor plan, the same developer, the same everything as far as I can see, and quite frankly if you asked me if I wanted to spend the night in that building I’d be a little, I wouldn’t be willing to do that, until we went through it."

He added that, during a cursory inspection by engineers of the North building yesterday, "nothing really significant jumped out at them", but that apartment owners were bringing in an engineering firm to do a forensic study with ground-penetrating radar on Tuesday.

Image: Six to eight crews are combing the rubble heap at any one time (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue)

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