Crews searching the collapsed condominium tower near Miami recovered an additional six bodies, bringing the death toll to 60, officials said on Thursday, one day after declaring there was no longer hope of finding anyone alive.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told a news conference that 80 people were still considered missing in the disaster, believed to have been inside the Champlain Towers South when it abruptly crumbled in the early hours of June 24.
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“My sister and my brother-in-law were – are – in that building right now,” said Martin Langesfeld, speaking at an impromptu memorial late Wednesday night a few hundred yards from the rubble, as the reality of vanquished hope set in.
Langesfeld, 23, said he still could not put his emotions into words. He looked bewildered that he would be there, standing before a pile of rubble, talking about his newly married sister, Nicole, buried underneath. How could this be?
“I want to truly say thank you,” Langesfeld said, looking into the eyes of the search and rescue team members standing a few feet away, whom he commended for putting their “blood, heart and souls” into trying to find his sister alive.
“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” he continued. “But we did become a family.”
Rescuers had spent two weeks digging through the rubble, searching in vain for any sign of life, Levine Cava said.
“They’ve used every possible strategy, and every possible technology available to them to find people in the rubble,” she said. “They’ve removed over 7 million pounds of concrete and debris from the mound. They’ve used sonar, cameras, dogs, heavy machinery. They’ve searched for void spaces and they’ve searched for victims. They ran into a building they were told could collapse, and they braved fire, smoke, torrential rain, and strong winds in the hopes of finding people alive.”
Hours before the formal transition from rescue to recovery mission, those emergency workers joined local officials, rabbis and chaplains in a moment of silence.
An accordion player unseen on a nearby tennis court played Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, which was followed by a piccolo playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Firefighters from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the federal government and elsewhere were also present.
On a tall nearby fence, families and well-wishers had posted photos of the victims, supportive messages and flowers. Firefighters hung a banner atop the fence that read “Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Mourns With You.”
Officials pledged to continue the recovery efforts until they find the remains of every one of the missing.
Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told families during a private briefing that crews would stop using rescue dogs and listening devices.
“Our sole responsibility at this point is to bring closure,” he said, as relatives cried in the background.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said he expects the recovery effort will take several more weeks.
Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building, allowing rescuers access to new areas of debris.
Some of those voids did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no survivors emerged. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims. Because the building fell in the early morning hours, many were found dead in their beds.
No one has been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12-story building fell.
After initially hoping for miraculous rescues, families had slowly braced themselves for the news that their relatives did not survive.
“For some, what they’re telling us, it’s almost a sense of relief when they already know (that someone has died) and they can just start to put an end to that chapter and start to move on,” said Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic Maggie Castro, who has updated families daily.