SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Rescue efforts at the site of a partially collapsed Florida condominium building were halted Thursday out of concern about the stability of the remaining structure after crews noticed widening cracks and up to a foot of movement in a large column, resumed Thursday evening, officials said.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the decision about the demolition needed to be made “extremely carefully and methodically,” considering the effect on the search-and-rescue operations.
The stoppage that began shortly after 2 a.m. threatened to keep search teams off the rubble pile for an unknown period and dim hopes for finding anyone alive in the debris a week after the tower came down.
The stoppage had threatened to dim hopes for finding anyone alive in the debris a week after the tower came down. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the halt was worrisome since “minutes and hours matter, lives are at stake.”
The rescue operations were called off on the same day that President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited the devastated community.
The collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South beachfront condominium killed at least 18 people and left 145 missing. Hundreds of search-and-rescue personnel have painstakingly searched the pancaked rubble for potential signs of life, but no one has been rescued since the first hours after the collapse.
“This is life and death,” Biden said during a briefing. “We can do it, just the simple act of everyone doing what needs to be done, makes a difference.”
“There’s gonna be a lot of pain and anxiety and suffering and even the need for psychological help in the days and months that follow,” he said. “And so, we’re not going anywhere.”
Rescue work was halted after crews noticed several expansions in cracks they had been monitoring. They also observed 6 to 12 inches of movement in a large column hanging from the structure “that could fall and cause damage to support columns” in the underground parking garage, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said.
In addition, they noticed movement in the debris pile and slight movement in some concrete floor slabs “that could cause additional failure of the building,” he said.
Officials will work with structural engineers and other experts to “develop options” to continue rescue operations, Cominsky said.
Critical points around the site have been monitored with sensors since the rescue operation began, said Scott Nacheman, a structures specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said there were alarming indications of movement Wednesday night at three locations.
“What was of specific concern was that over the last six days we had not seen that type of significant movement, or in some locations any movement in those elements of the structure,” Nacheman said Thursday during a briefing for family members.
Heavy equipment in the rubble pile caused vibrations, according to Nacheman. Rain has also been entering exposed parts of the building, saturating items and adding weight to the floors.
Covering parts of the structure to prevent further water damage or tearing down the building risks additional loss of life because those steps would require sending people back inside, Nacheman said. Demolition would also add debris on top of areas that have already been cleared of rubble.
Peter Milián is a cousin of Marcus Guara, who died along with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, and their two children, 10-year-old Lucia Guara and 4-year-old Emma Guara. Milián said he understands why the rescue work had to be temporarily halted and is confident search efforts will continue.
“I mean, they’ve done everything they can. But we trust the people that are on the ground. And obviously, they’ve got to do what’s best for their people, right? Because it is a dangerous situation,” he said.
Searchers going through the ruins found the remains of six people Wednesday, bringing the number of confirmed dead to 18. The number of residents unaccounted for stands at 145.
During a private meeting with family members, Biden drew on his own experiences with grief to try to comfort them. Biden lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash and decades later lost an adult son to brain cancer.
“I just wish there was something I could do to ease the pain,” he said in a video posted on Instagram by Jacqueline Patoka, a woman who was close to a couple and their daughter who are still missing.
“We’ve had several challenges from weather, sorrow, pain. And I think that the president coming will bring some unity here for our community, support, like our governor, our mayor, all of us together,” he said.
Biden spoke of wanting to switch places with a lost or missing loved one. “The waiting, the waiting is unbearable,” he said.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said state engineers, the fire department and county officials are exploring options on how to deal with the structural concerns.
“Obviously, we believe that continuing searching is very, very important,” DeSantis said, adding that the state will ”provide whatever resources they need” to allow the search to continue.
Previously, they had sometimes sparred over how best to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, with clashes over wearing masks and other measures to control the pandemic. But no signs of partisanship have been evident in Surfside.
DeSantis has spoken appreciatively of the aid coming from Washington, even commending the Biden administration for “stepping up to the plate.”
“We really appreciate having the support of the president,” DeSantis said at a Friday news conference in Surfside — although hours before, he had blasted President Joe Biden’s border policies during an earlier press conference in the state’s Panhandle.
DeSantis, who is up for reelection next year, is said to be exploring a run for the presidency in 2024.
Among the remains found Wednesday were those of a mother and her two daughters, ages 4 and 10, a loss that Cava called “too great to bear.”
Cominsky confirmed Thursday that workers tried to rescue a woman shortly after the building collapsed when they heard a voice in the rubble.
“We were searching for a female voice … we heard for several hours, and eventually we didn’t hear her voice anymore,” he said.
Cominsky said they continued searching. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have success on that,” he said.
The cause of the collapse is under investigation. A 2018 engineering report found that the building’s ground-floor pool deck was resting on a concrete slab that had “major structural damage” and needed extensive repairs. The report also found “abundant cracking” of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage.
Just two months before the building came down, the president of its board wrote a letter to residents saying that structural problems identified in the 2018 inspection had “gotten significantly worse” and that major repairs would cost at least $15.5 million. With bids for the work still pending, the building suddenly collapsed last Thursday.