Death toll from Florida building collapse climbs to five

The death toll from the partial collapse of a Florida high-rise apartment building rose to five on Saturday as officials continued to hold out hope for survivors, following the release of an engineering report from three years ago that warned of “major structural damage.”

The increase in the death toll by one underscored the slow and painstaking search process more than two days after part of the 12-story oceanfront building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, pancaked into a mountain of debris as residents slept inside.

“Today our search and rescue teams found another body in the rubble and as well our search has revealed some human remains,” Miami-Dade County mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters Saturday evening.

With the identification of three previously recovered bodies and notification of next of kin, “it means that the unaccounted is now gone down to 156, confirmed deaths are now at a total of five,” she said.

Rescuers were able to battle back a fire that hampered their efforts earlier in the day, and workers had dug a trench through the debris to control the “very deep” blaze.

“We don’t have a resource problem here, we have a luck problem,” said Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett.

“The issue is we’ve been fighting the elements, we’ve been fighting the fire, but we have one objective. And that is to bring those people out of the rubble safely and return them to their families.” 

The passage of time with no further survivors being found raised fears of a much higher death toll as rescuers sift through the debris with heavy machinery and sniffer dogs, and as increasingly frustrated families continued their agonizing wait.

“We have a friend who got out of the building with her husband,” Gina Berlin, 54, who lives in the neighborhood, told AFP. “She is still traumatized… And I am still in shock.”

At a makeshift memorial on a nearby street, well-wishers piled flowers and lit candles, while family members posted dozens of pictures of missing persons on a chain-link fence.

Two big cranes on Saturday continued shifting debris as the acrid smell of burnt rubber and melting plastic hung in the baking Florida heat.

– ‘Abundant’ cracking –

Authorities and experts have stressed that the causes for Champlain Tower South’s collapse are still unknown. 

But the report of an engineering consultancy that studied the building in 2018, released late Friday by officials, underlined early concerns.

It said its inspectors found “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below a ground-level pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling in the parking garage.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” warned the report, from the Morabito Consultants firm.

Most of the damage was “probably caused by years of exposure to the corrosive salt air along the South Florida coast,” it said.

The report did not indicate that the 40-year-old building risked collapse, but said it needed repairs to maintain “structural integrity.”

A lawyer for the building’s owners told The New York Times that work was “just about to get started” on the multi-million dollar repairs.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters Saturday that local officials were “considering potentially evacuating” a nearby building that was built by the same developers, around the same time, as the collapsed structure. But he said there were no indications of immediate danger there.

A study led by Florida International University found signs of land subsidence — a phenomenon affecting much of the Atlantic coast — at the site in the mid-1990s.

Mayor Cava said the county would immediately undertake a one-month safety audit of all buildings 40 years or older. 

– ’72 hours’ –

Meanwhile, authorities held out hope that survivors were underneath the rubble.

“All of our training tells us that for at least the first 72 hours, there are high likelihood of people that could be alive in there,” Danny Cardeso, with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, told CBS News.

Israel announced it was sending a team of engineers and rescue specialists to help. 

“We will make every effort to help save human life, and to offer our support to the Jewish community and to our American friends,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Faced with the painstakingly slow search, some families voiced frustration. 

“Not enough is being done,” said Mike Salberg, who came from New York after the accident. Five family members, including his parents, remain unaccounted for.

“I want answers,” he told AFP. 

Others were preparing for the worst.

“We want to be hopeful but also we have to be realistic,” said a man who gave his name only as Mark, waiting for news of his friend’s mother.

“The next step is being there for the families and know why this happened.”

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