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Death toll in Florida building collapse rises to 12 with 149 missing

SURFSIDE, Fla., June 29 (Reuters) – Another body was recovered on Tuesday from the ruins of a Florida condominium tower, the mayor said, raising the death toll in the collapse to at least 12 with 149 people still listed as missing.

The latest casualty of the disaster, which could ultimately rank as the worst accidental building collapse in U.S. history, was not immediately identified by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava during an afternoon news conference.

Investigators have not yet determined what caused a major section of the 40-year-old building to collapse abruptly. Initial attention has focused on structural deficiencies described in a 2018 engineer’s report.

In April 2021, the condominium association’s president warned residents that concrete damage had “gotten significantly worse,” and urged them to pay some $15 million in assessments needed to make repairs, media reported.

Florida emergency management director Kevin Guthrie said local authorities on Tuesday had asked the federal government to send additional urban search and rescue teams to the scene in the town of Surfside.

Authorities say they still have hope that survivors might yet be found in the pile of concrete and twisted metal left when nearly half of the 12-story, 136-unit tower caved in.

“The rescue effort continues unabated except for that brief lightning storm we had today,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

No one has been pulled alive from the ruins of the oceanfront Champlain Towers South since a few hours after one side of the high-rise collapsed early on Thursday morning as most residents slept.

Fire officials have spoken of detecting faint sounds from inside the rubble pile and finding voids deep in the debris large enough to possibly sustain life.

But Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said search-and-rescue personnel faced an enormous task while working 12-hour shifts in the heat.

“That building collapsed almost in a footprint of where that building stood – we’re talking about 12 stories, with subterranean garages all within that same footprint,” Cominsky said. “I’m sure to emphasize the magnitude of what we encountered, what we’re seeing,” he told reporters.

Rescue workers have moved 3 million pounds of concrete piece by piece from the debris since the collapse, Cominsky said. The teams include experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search.

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, will visit Surfside on Thursday, the White House said.

The disaster has sent officials in nearby areas scrambling to check the safety of buildings.

Miami Beach, just to the south of Surfside, has ordered a “walkthrough visual” inspection of about 500 multi-family commercial units over the next week, Mayor Dan Gelber said.

“But at the same time we are going to require within probably three weeks, all of these buildings in the recertification process to come up with an updated report,” Gelber told CNN.

A makeshift memorial a block from the site held bouquets of fresh hydrangeas tucked into a chain-link fence. A poster board with hearts had a message for the first responders: “Thank you for looking for my grandmother.”

Levin Cava said she had spoken on Tuesday with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. A grand jury has yet to be impaneled, she said, but when it is, “we will be fully on board.”

The 2018 engineer’s report warned of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab beneath the pool deck and deterioration, including exposed rebar, in the underground parking garage. The report’s author, Frank Morabito, wrote that the deterioration would “expand exponentially” if not repaired.

“It’s all starting to come together now, because like I’ve said all along, there was something very, very wrong at this building,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told CNN on Tuesday when asked about the April 2021 warning by the condo association’s president. “Buildings in America just don’t fall down like this.”

A lawyer who works with the condo association, Donna DiMaggio Berger, previously said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area.

Ross Prieto, then Surfside’s top building official, met with residents weeks after the report was produced and assured them the building was “in very good shape,” according to minutes of the meeting released on Monday.

Reuters was unable to reach Prieto, who is no longer employed by Surfside. He told the Miami Herald newspaper he did not remember getting the report.

Source: Reuters