Rescue workers scouring the debris of a collapsed condo building in a Miami suburb in the southern US state, Florida, continued to search for survivors on Friday, as officials raised the number of people unaccounted for to 159 and the confirmed death toll to four.
With many firefighters working overnight both from under and atop the remains of the building, hopes rested on how quickly crews using dogs and microphones to sift through the wreckage could complete their grim, yet delicate task.
“It’s heartbreaking but our only focus right now is search and rescue, that’s all we’re doing, search and rescue, search and rescue, search and rescue 24 hours a day,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told NPR on Friday.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters that three more bodies were pulled from the wreckage overnight. Another person was reported to have died on Thursday. The mayor also increased the number of presumed missing from 99.
“Our unaccounted for number has gone up up to 159. In addition, we can tragically report the death count is now four,” Levine Cava said during a news briefing.
Early on Thursday morning, a large section of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, a small suburb north of Miami Beach – a barrier island town across Biscayne Bay from the city of Miami – crumbled to the ground, authorities said.
With searchers using saws and jackhammers to look for pockets large enough to hold a person, Levine Cava said there was still hope of finding people alive.
The rubble is three stories high, and officials say the building “pancaked” during the collapse, with floors flattened on top of each other.
The missing at what was left of the 12-story Champlain Towers South included people from around the world.
Argentines Dr Andres Galfrascoli, his husband, Fabian Nunez, and their 6-year-old daughter, Sofia, had spent Wednesday night there at an apartment belonging to a friend, Nicolas Fernandez.
Galfrascoli, a Buenos Aires plastic surgeon, and Nunez, a theater producer and accountant, had come to Florida to get away from a COVID-19 resurgence in Argentina and its strict lockdowns. They had worked hard to adopt Sofia, Fernandez said.
“Of all days, they chose the worst to stay there,” Fernandez said. “I hope it’s not the case, but if they die like this, that would be so unfair.”
Foreign ministries and consulates of four other South American countries said 22 of their nationals were missing in the collapse: nine from Argentina, six from Paraguay, four from Venezuela and three from Uruguay.
The Paraguayans included Sophia Lopez Moreira – the sister of First Lady Silvana Abdo and sister-in-law of President Mario Abdo Benitez – and her family.
Israeli media said the country’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, believes that 20 citizens of that country are missing.
Many people remained at the reunification center set up near the collapse site early Friday morning, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.
Officials said no cause for the collapse has been determined.
Late Thursday night, a resident of the collapsed building filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit against the condominium, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.
Manuel Drezner said in the proposed class action that the collapse could have been avoided had the condominium made needed repairs and ensured it was safe.
He said the condominium should pay unit owners millions of dollars for their “unfathomable loss.”
Video of the collapse showed the center of the building appearing to tumble down first and a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later, as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighbourhood.
Television video early Friday showed crews still fighting flareups of fires on the rubble piles. Intermittent rain over South Florida is also hampering the search.
This drone video, shared with me by a state official in Florida, shows where the collapsed condo in Surfside is in proximity to the beach. There are more than 150 specialized firefighters here building a tunnel under the collapsed building to try & get to victims that way. pic.twitter.com/Hg4WBZgpaV
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) June 25, 2021
Footage captured by a security camera nearby showed an entire side of the building, built in 1981, suddenly folding in two sections, one after the other, at about 1:30 am (0530 GMT), throwing up clouds of dust.
US President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.