SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Demolition workers will bring down the remainder of a partially collapsed condo building in South Florida ahead of an approaching storm that has heightened concerns that the structure could crumble dangerously on its own, officials said Saturday.
The search and rescue mission was suspended in the afternoon as crews began the precarious business of boring holes into the concrete of the still-standing portion of the Champlain Towers South tower in Surfside, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members.
Jadallah said the suspension was a necessary safety measure because the drilling of holes to hold the explosives for the demolition could have caused the unstable structure to fail. If that were to happen, he said, “It’s just going to collapse without warning.”
But in a video stream of Jadallah’s briefing to relatives of the missing, one of them was heard calling it “devastating” that the search had to stop.
With Tropical Storm Elsa looming in the Caribbean and forecast to move toward the state in the coming days, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the building in Surfside is “tottering” and “structurally unsound” and demolishing it is the prudent thing to do.
“If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” DeSantis said at a news conference earlier in the day. “And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard.”
The confirmed death toll from the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South, meanwhile, rose to 24 with the discovery of two more bodies in the rubble Saturday morning, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. There were 121 people still unaccounted for.
The building won’t come down until Monday at the earliest, Jadallah said.
Concerns had already been mounting over the past week that the damaged structure was at risk of failure, endangering the crews below and complicating the search. The search in adjacent areas was curtailed, and shifts detected by monitors early Thursday prompted a 15-hour suspension of the entire effort until engineers determined it was safe to resume.
The incoming storm, which prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency, forced officials’ hand.
“The fear was that (Elsa) may take the building down for us and take it down in the wrong direction,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.
Elsa was downgraded Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph) as it brushed past the island of Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The long-term forecast track showed it heading toward Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, though some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic Coast. Weather officials warned that it could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the Miami area.
“So we can’t let our guard down,” National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda said. “You still need to be watching this very closely.”
Once the structure is demolished, the remnants will be removed immediately with the intent of giving rescuers access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest, Jadallah said. That could give a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the June 24 collapse.
The demolition would temporarily suspend the search, but officials hope not for long. Some families had asked to be able to return to the building to retrieve personal belongings, but they will not be allowed to do so.
“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” DeSantis said. “I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that, but I don’t think there’s any way you can let somebody go up in that building given the shape that it’s in now.’’