Families and friends of the 159 people missing after the collapse of a condo building in a Miami suburb were clinging to hope on Friday as rescue workers sifted through a mountain of debris for signs of life, having found four dead so far.
Three more bodies were pulled from the rubble overnight after one person was reported dead on Thursday. Officials increased the number of presumed missing to 159, up from 99 reported missing on Thursday.
"We have one goal in mind now and that is to bring people out alive and that's all we're doing," Surfside mayor Charles Burkett told reporters on Friday. "We're not stopping."
Rescue workers were treading carefully through the structurally unstable debris pile looking for survivors, removing rubble by hand while battling intermittent rainstorms and an ongoing fire that broke out at the site.
“I’m praying for a miracle,” Rachel Spiegel, whose mother Judy Spiegel was missing, told CNN on Friday.
The last time Ms Spiegel communicated with her mother was on Wednesday night, when her mother excitedly texted her that she had bought a dress online for Ms Spiegel’s daughter.
Hours later, early on Thursday morning, a large section of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, a barrier island town across Biscayne Bay from the city of Miami, crumbled to the ground.
Video captured by a security camera nearby showed an entire side of the building suddenly folding in two sections, one after the other, at about 1.30am (6.30am Irish time) on Thursday, throwing up clouds of dust.
Dozens of people were gathered at a reunification site at the Surfside community centre on Friday, where the scene was hectic with volunteers running around and people hugging to console each other.
Outside the centre, Toby Fried held back tears when she said she last spoke to her brother Chiam "Harry" Rosenberg around midnight on Wednesday. Mr Rosenberg had lived in Champlain Towers for about a year and a half. He and his daughter Malki Weiss and her husband Beni Weiss, who were visiting him from Brooklyn in New York City, were all missing.
“They came to stay with him for a week on vacation,” Mr Fried said.
Joining the families searching for missing loved ones was Paraguay’s first lady Silvana López Moreira, who travelled to Florida because her sister, brother-in-law and their children were unaccounted for. The first lady’s family owned a condo in the building, local media reported.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant fire chief Ray Jadallah said on Friday that rescuers had heard sounds in the rubble overnight, but said it could be either falling debris or people tapping.
“We are listening for sounds, human sounds,” he said.
Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 110 individuals whose whereabouts were initially unknown had been located and "declared safe." "We still have hope that we will find people alive," the mayor said.
A fire official said earlier that 35 people were evacuated from the section of the high-rise left standing, and response teams using trained dogs and drones in the search pulled two individuals from the rubble. One of them was dead.
Survivor Janette Aguero, her husband and her two teenage children had been staying in her mother-in-law’s apartment on holidays. At about 1.20am on Thursday she was startled by what felt like an earthquake, she said. Her family ran down the stairwell to escape.
“A million things raced through my mind,” Ms Aguero said. “I grabbed the kids and our phones. That was the only thing we could take because everyone was telling us we had to get out.”
“The room were my children slept is only 15 feet away from the section that collapsed,” she said.
US president Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.
"The president's action authorises the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, to co-ordinate all disaster relief efforts," the White House said on Friday.
What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to cave in was not immediately known, although local officials said the 12-story tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs.
Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking about 1mm to 3mm per year while surrounding buildings remained stable, said Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.
“Either the building is settling into the soil or maybe there is some compromise with the structure, a compromise within the building. We cannot really say,” he said in a telephone interview. “I was very surprised, because I didn’t expect that.”
He said there was not sufficient data to show whether the movement had continued since then.
Late on Thursday night, a resident of the collapsed building filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit against the condominium, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.
Manuel Drezner said in the proposed class action that the collapse could have been avoided had the condominium made needed repairs and ensured it was safe.
He said the condominium should pay unit owners millions of dollars for their “unfathomable loss”.
Officials said the complex, built in 1981, was going through a recertification process requiring repairs, with another building under construction on an adjacent site.
The Champlain Towers South had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It had been subject to various inspections recently due to the recertification process and the adjacent building construction, Surfside commissioner Charles Kesl told Miami television station WPLG Local 10. – Reuters