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Many feared dead after Florida beachfront condo collapses

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Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned during a news conference that the building manager told him the tower was quite full and the death toll was likely to rise. A fire official said rescuers have pulled 35 people from the building.

Posted: Jun 24, 2021 6:32 AM
Updated: Jun 24, 2021 12:33 PM

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person and trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled out dozens of survivors and continued to look for more.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “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 to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.

Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage, but it was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who toured the scene, said television did not capture the scale of what happened.

Rescue crews are "doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.

Authorities did not say what may have caused the collapse. On video footage captured from nearby, the center of the building appeared to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.

Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have been the cause.

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.

About half of the building's roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.

Fifty-one people who were thought to be in the building at the time of the collapse were unaccounted for by mid-morning — but there was a possibility that some weren't at home, said Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.

The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett said.

Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.

The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs inside. Air conditioners hung from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.

Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. 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 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 cherry-picker.

Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

Surfside City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Miami television station WPLG that the building’s county-mandated 40-year recertification process was ongoing. Salzhauer said the process was believed to be proceeding without difficulty. A building inspector was on-site Wednesday.

“I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. ... And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”

At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor.

Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.

“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a tweet that more than 80 units were at the scene with help from municipal fire departments. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

Nicolas Fernandez waited early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.

“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones,” she said.

The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000 in an area with a neighborhood feel that provides a stark contrast to the glitz and bustle of nearby South Beach.

The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The main oceanside drag is lined with glass-sided, luxury condominium buildings, but more modest houses are on the inland side. Among the neighborhood’s residents are snowbirds, Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jewish families.

Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law's vacant condo on Wednesday but didn't, only to awake to news of the collapse.

“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”

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