Biden offers comfort as rescue suspended at Florida building collapse

US President Joe Biden hailed the “resilience” Thursday of families of people killed or missing in a collapsed Florida beachfront apartment building, spending hours comforting grieving relatives as rescuers suspended their work for much of the day due to dangerous conditions.

Biden said there was still hope that some survivors could be found in the rubble, and while “the families are very realistic,” the president said he believed after talking with them that the rescue and recovery operations should continue. 

“What amazed me about this group of people was their resilience, their absolute commitment… to do whatever it takes to find an answer,” he said.

“Our message today is that we’re here for you, as one nation.”

The search at the Surfside condominium building near Miami took a grim turn when authorities paused work amid fears the rest of the structure could also collapse.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky warned that there was “a large column hanging from the structure that could fall” and that movements in the ruins “could cause additional failure of the building.”

The search resumed in the late afternoon after a review by structural engineers, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

The 18 confirmed dead so far include two children, aged four and 10, she said late Wednesday. More than 140 others remain unaccounted for and hopes of finding any alive are evaporating.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden left the White House early for Surfside, saying they wanted to support first responders and comfort grieving relatives.

“What you’re doing now is just hard as hell,” Biden told emergency workers. “I just want to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The couple stopped at an improvised memorial wall one block from the mangled building, which rose above the fence covered with photos, homemade signs and flowers.

The Bidens walked slowly along it, and the first lady laid a bouquet of white irises on the curb. They stood for a moment as the president bowed his head, crossing himself before leaving the site.

– Political spin –

With Florida a crucial state on the US election map, there was considerable focus on interactions during the visit between Biden and state Governor Ron DeSantis — a rising Republican star who has been touted as a possible 2024 presidential candidate.

In another political twist to the aftermath of the catastrophic accident, former president Donald Trump was planning a rally in Sarasota, Florida, on Saturday. 

DeSantis has joined calls for postponing the event, which is part of Trump’s attempt to remain the dominant force in Republican politics.

Biden, who has made attempts at bipartisan unity a central theme of his presidency, made a point of publicly joining with DeSantis, who himself praised the president for having been “supportive” from “day one.”

“We’re letting the nation know we can cooperate when it’s really important,” Biden said.

“There’s no Democrat or Republican out there,” he added later. “Just people who wanted to do the right thing for their fellow Americans.”

– ‘Low’ chance of survival –

The cave-in of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building has sparked a search-and-rescue effort involving engineers and specialists from across the United States and as far afield as Mexico and Israel.

Elad Edri, deputy commander of an Israeli search and rescue team, said rescuers had completed a map outlining bedrooms and other living spaces in the building where residents could be trapped.

Rescuers made it to an underground parking structure where it had been hoped they might discover people who had been trapped in cars, but found no one, Edri said.

“It’s been more than six days from the collapsing,” he cautioned, deeming the chances of finding any survivors “low.”

– ‘Earthquake’ –

Biden, whose first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, shared his own personal tragedy with the Surfside families, according to Daniel Hadar, a rabbi of Temple Moses congregation who was in the room.

Biden “came with a lot of love and a lot of time,” Hadar noted. “He said ‘I know loss, I understand loss and I want to share with you where I’ve been.'”

Residents in the part of Champlain Towers South that remained intact reported being awakened around 1:30 am (0530 GMT) Thursday by what sounded like cracks of thunder that shook their rooms.

“It was like an earthquake,” Janette Aguero, who escaped from the tower’s 11th floor with her family, told AFP.

Rescuers who arrived in the moments after the tower came down helped evacuate dozens of residents, and pulled one teenage boy alive from the rubble. 

No other survivors have been found, despite deployment of sniffer dogs and cranes for lifting debris.

Experts are looking at possible pre-existing critical flaws in the building’s structure. 

A 2018 report released by city officials revealed fears of “major structural damage” in the complex, from the concrete slab under the pool deck to columns and beams in the parking garage. 

In a letter to residents in April, Jean Wodnicki, chair of the condo association, described “accelerating” damage to the 40-year-old building since then.

Repairs had been set to begin soon.

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