A wing of a 12-storey beachfront apartment building in a town outside Miami collapsed early on Thursday, killing at least four people and trapping dozens of people beneath the pile of rubble and twisted metal.
The number of people unaccounted for following the collapse of the Florida apartment block has risen to 159, the county’s mayor said on Friday.
“We do have 120 people now accounted for, which is very, very good news. But our unaccounted for number has gone up to 159,” Miami-Dade County mayor Daniella Levine Cava told a news conference.
Rescuers pulled out some survivors as they continued their search through the wreckage of the condominium tower that was built in Surfside in 1981. On Friday, video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage.
Residents from other parts of the building were evacuated.
Officials did not know how many were in the tower when it suddenly fell to the ground at around 1:30 am local time (04:30 GMT). Many people were asleep at the time.
“The building is literally pancaked,” said Charles Burkett, the mayor of the town of Surfside.
NEW VIDEO from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue: crews working in the flooded basement parking garage.
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“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.”
Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated in order to get her out of the debris, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.
Earlier on Friday, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.
“The President’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts,” the White House said.
‘Pulled under the rubble’
Governor Ron DeSantis, who visited the scene on Thursday afternoon, said television had not captured the true scale of what had happened.
Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.
Teams of 10 to 12 rescuers were entering the rubble with dogs and other equipment, working until they tire from the heavy lifting, then making way for a new team, said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, the state’s fire marshal.
Earlier Miami Dade Fire Rescue Chief Ray Jadallah said the destruction affected 55 of the building’s 136 apartment units and 35 people who were trapped in the building were rescued, including two who were pulled from under the rubble and taken to hospital.
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.
Renovations under way
Officials said although it appears that work was being done on the building’s roof, the cause of the collapse remains unknown.
Structural engineers were on site to assess the damage and make sure the area was safe for rescue teams. They will then begin to assess what might have caused the building to fall down.
Ken O’Dell, a spokesperson for the National Council for Structural Engineers with some 30 years experience in the industry, says the team will be investigating a number of factors.
“There’s probably not a single cause of this type of collapse,” he told Al Jazeera. “We need to understand the different issues – design, maintenance, age, changes (to the building) – that could have have affected the building and how they could have compounded.”
He stressed that such events remained extremely rare in the United States.
Officials have urged people to report those still missing by calling a “unification centre” that has been set up to help in the search.
Nicolas Fernandez was waiting for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them non-stop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to help the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones.”
The collapse left a number of apartments in the still-standing part of the building exposed. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside the damaged apartments. Air-conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. 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 eventually 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 boom lift crane.
Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked paving stones around the swimming pool.
The collapse appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower. Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with a light layer of dust from the debris.