Florida condo collapse: Smoldering debris slowing rescue efforts as 156 still missing

Search and rescue efforts Saturday at the site of a collapsed condominium building in Florida were hindered by a deep, smoldering fire amid the rubble.

Officials said at a morning press conference that air quality at the site is a concern and that, as they continue to remove and rearrange the debris, adding more air to crevices in their search for possible survivors could cause the smoldering fire to flare up. The concrete and metal remains of the collapsed 12-story tower stood at more than 30-feet high.

Part of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside collapsed without warning on Thursday. Officials said they still don’t know exactly how many residents or visitors were in the building when it fell, but are still trying to locate 156 people who were considered unaccounted for and may or may not have been inside. Five people were killed.

Rescuers used infrared technology, water and foam to battle the blaze, whose source was unclear, and Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the smoke has been the biggest challenge. In a news conference, she described the blaze as "very deep" and said rescuers faced "incredible difficulties" because of the flames.

A fire hose blasted one of the lower floors on the north side of the tower as white smoke or steam streamed out, and a bitter, sulfur-like smell hung in the air.

"The stench is very thick," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

Rescuers were using big machines, small buckets, drones, microphones and their own hands to pick through the rubble to look for any signs of survival.

Earlier in the day, an engineering report from 2018 was released that said the oceanfront building had "major structural damage" to a concrete structural slab below its pool deck.

Lavin Cava said Saturday she "knew nothing" about the report prior to the building’s collapse. She added that the county is going to begin auditing buildings nearing their 40-year review, as this building was, to make sure they’re safe.

"We are obviously very interested in all of the evidence that’s coming to light and we’re including it in our what happens after the rescue, and in the meantime, we’re taking actions to make sure other buildings are safe," she said.

She asked other cities in the county to join the building review and said there will be state and federal funding to help.

At the same news conference, DeSantis was asked if he’d feel safe sleeping in the condo’s "sister building," which was built around the same time by the same developer just about 100 yards away.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he was working on a plan to temporarily relocate those residents and said that FEMA has agreed to pay for lodging. Burkett added that he was also trying to arrange an emergency inspection and until that happens, he can’t tell residents whether they’re safe.

The mayor said he didn't plan to order residents to evacuate, but if he lived there, "I’d be gone."

The 2018 report in question, released among a series of documents by the city of Surfside, came from the firm of Morabito Consultants and did not warn of imminent danger from the damage, but did note the need for extensive and costly repairs to fix the systemic issues with the building.

It said the waterproofing under the pool deck had failed and had been improperly laid flat instead of sloped, preventing water from draining off.

"The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially," the report said.

The firm recommended that the damaged slabs be replaced in what would be a major repair.

The report also uncovered "abundant cracking and spalling" of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage. Some of the damage was minor, while other columns had exposed and deteriorating rebar. It also noted that many of the building's previous attempts to fix the columns and other damage with epoxy were marred by poor workmanship and were failing.

Beneath the pool deck "where the slab had been epoxy-injected, new cracks were radiating from the originally repaired cracks," the report said.

It’s unclear if any of the damage observed in the report is responsible for the collapse. Officials have not yet determined a cause. 

Dozens Presumed Missing After Residential Building In Miami Area Partially Collapses

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JUNE 25: Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Over one hundred peopl

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At the time of the collapse, the Champlain Towers South building was in the midst of its 40-year recertification process, which requires detailed structural and electrical inspections. The building was built in 1981.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said in an interview Friday he wasn't sure the inspection had been completed but that it may contain vital clues to the deadly disaster, if so.

"It should have been a very straightforward thing," Burkett said. "Buildings in America do not just fall down like this. There is a reason. We need to find out what that reason is."

The land on which Champlain Towers sits has been gradually sinking, according to a study published last year by an environmental professor at Florida International University.

But the professor, Shimon Wdowinski, cautioned against blaming the collapse on the caving ground. The study used satellite data collected between 1993 to 1999 to study the sinking of land in Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava added at a news conference Friday that she has seen no evidence of a sinkhole — much more common in other parts of Florida — or of something criminal, such as a bomb.

"I can tell you that at this time, they haven't found any evidence of foul play," she said.

Officials are also looking to see if the rising ocean water in South Florida due to climate change may have intruded into concrete supports.

Surfside officials also said roof work was ongoing at the now-collapsed tower but have downplayed the possibility that work was a cause.

RELATED: Miami-area condo collapse: At least 4 dead, 159 missing as search continues

Meanwhile, flowers left in tribute decorated a fence near the tower, and people awaiting news about the search watched from a distance. Congregants prayed at a nearby synagogue where some members were among the missing. Surfside is home to a large Jewish Orthodox community.

Those missing in the aftermath are a true reflection of Miami’s international mix. Families around the world are hoping for news of their loved ones. 

Israeli media said the country’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, believed that 20 citizens of that country are missing. Another 22 people were unaccounted for from Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay, including relatives of Paraguayan first lady Silvana de Abdo Benítez.

Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said authorities were working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the bodies that have been found. Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.

The collapse is already drawing lawsuits, including one filed hours after the collapse by attorney Brad Sohn against the condo's homeowners association seeking damages for negligence and other reasons for all of the tower's residents.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.