Wing of Miami-area condo collapses; many feared dead

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse

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A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person and trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled dozens of survivors from the tower during the morning and continued to look for more.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

Authorities did not say what may have caused the collapse. Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have been the cause.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she got a call from President Joe Biden, who offered federal aid. Hotels opened to some of the displaced residents, she said, and deliveries of food, medicine and more were being hastily arranged. Rescue officials tried to determine how many people might be missing and asked residents to check in with them.

About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.

Fifty-one people who were thought to be in the building at the time of the collapse were unaccounted for by mid-morning — but there was a possibility that some weren’t at home, said Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.

The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett said.

Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said officials were “bracing for some bad news just given the destruction that we’re seeing.”

The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs inside. Air conditioners hung from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.

This aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed early Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. (Amy Beth Bennett /South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first 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 find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”

“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”

He and his wife made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.

Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

Surfside City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Miami television station WPLG that the building’s county-mandated 40-year recertification process was ongoing. Salzhauer said the process was believed to be proceeding without difficulty. A building inspector was on-site Wednesday.

“I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. … And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”

At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor. When a news conference about the collapse appeared on the TV, the room went silent.

Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.

Jennifer Carr, right, sits with her daughter as they wait for news at a family reunification center, after a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a tweet that more than 80 units were at the scene with help from municipal fire departments. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

Nicolas Fernandez waited early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.

“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones.”

The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000 in an area with a neighborhood feel that provides a stark contrast to the glitz and bustle of nearby South Beach.

The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The main oceanside drag is lined with glass-sided, luxury condominium buildings, but more modest houses are on the inland side. Among the neighborhood’s residents are snowbirds, Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jewish families.

Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law’s vacant condo on Wednesday but didn’t, only to awake to news of the collapse.

“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”

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