Death toll in Florida condo collapse now 78 amid search for cause

Fourteen more bodies were recovered as searchers used heavy equipment to move mounds of shattered concrete and steel.

A man places flowers on a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Surfside's Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Miami, Florida [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]
A man places flowers on a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Surfside's Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Miami, Florida [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

The death toll in the collapse of a Miami-area high-rise condo building jumped to 78 on Friday, a number the mayor called “heartbreaking” as recovery workers toiled to find victims in the rubble.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told a media conference the work to recover victims was “moving forward with great urgency” in order to bring closure to families who have spent an agonizing two weeks waiting for news.

“This is a staggering and heartbreaking number that affects all of us very deeply,” Levine Cava said of the latest death toll. Another 62 people remain unaccounted for.

Paraguay’s foreign minister said in a radio report that the sister of Paraguay’s first lady was among the dead. Several Latin American citizens were reported in the building when it collapsed. No one has been found alive since the first hours after building fell on June 24.

“We know that there will be long-term impacts for the teams on the front line,” Levine Cava said. “They have given so much of themselves in these first two weeks.”

Rescue workers and emergency support teams from Florida and several other states have laboured in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day for 16 days in physically and emotionally taxing work amid oppressive heat and in dangerous conditions.

Exhausted members of the search and rescue team observe a moment of silence at site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida [Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/via Reuters]

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said taking care of the mental health and wellbeing of the first responders is a priority. He said it is critical that the first responders communicate with each other. “It’s important for us to talk,” he said.

To that end, Levine Cava said officials have added peer support personnel at the fire stations.

The painstaking search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort this week after authorities said they had come to the conclusion that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside.

Investigators from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been searching for clues to the building’s collapse.

“NIST has made significant progress in tagging and transporting pieces of forensic evidence from the pile,” Levine Cava said.

“They’ve now collected over 200 pieces of evidence and they recently deployed scientists from the physics measurement lab in Washington to assist with the analysis.”

Attention has focused on a 2018 engineering report that warned of structural deficiencies.

More than 200 pieces of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium have been shipped by federal investigators to Washington, DC, for forensic analysis [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building on July 4, allowing access to new areas of debris. Some voids where survivors could have been trapped did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage.

Grimly, rescue workers now focused on finding remains instead of survivors.

State and local officials have pledged financial assistance to families of the victims, as well as to residents of the building who survived but lost all their possessions. Meanwhile, authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse. And at least six lawsuits have been filed by families.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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