‘We are all still praying for a miracle’: South Florida condo collapse death toll rises to 64

Florida

Momentos, personal items and flowers are seen displayed at the Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. The display honors those who died during the collapse of the 12-story oceanfront condo, Champlain Towers South in Surfside (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Rescue workers now focused on finding remains instead of survivors in the rubble of a Florida condominium collapse paused briefly atop the pile Thursday to mark the two-week anniversary of the disaster but said they had no plans to pull back during the recovery effort.

The death toll rose to 64, with another 76 people unaccounted for, Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Thursday. Detectives are still working to verify that each of those listed as missing was actually in the building when it collapsed. Meanwhile, rescue workers who have been at the site for two weeks are dedicated to the task of recovering as many victims as possible, Levine Cava said.

“The work continues with all speed and urgency,” she said. “We are working around the clock to recover victims and to bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can.”

The painstaking search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort at midnight Wednesday after authorities said they had come to the agonizing conclusion that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside.

“When that happened, it took a little piece of the hearts of this community,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose congressional district includes Surfside.

Michael Stratton, whose wife, Cassie, has not officially been confirmed dead, said friends and family had accepted “the loss of a bright and kind soul with an adventurous spirit.” He was talking on the phone with his wife right when the building collapsed, and she described shaking before the phone went dead, he has told Denver’s KDVR-TV.

“This wasn’t the miracle we prayed for, but it was not for lack of trying by rescue crews whose tireless bravery will never be forgotten,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Wasserman Schultz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged financial assistance to families of the victims, as well as to residents of the building who survived but lost all their possessions, while acknowledging the devastating toll the tragedy has taken on them over the past two weeks.

“Is there hope? Will we be able to have a miracle? I know it’s weighed a lot on the families,” DeSantis said.

In addition to property tax relief for residents of the building, DeSantis said the state government will work toward channeling an outpouring of charitable donations to families affected by the collapse. Levine Cava said crews were also collecting and cataloguing a long list of personal items, including legal documents, photo albums, jewelry, wallets, and electronic goods that they would seek to reunite families with.

The Rev. Juan Sosa of St. Joseph Catholic Church met with other spiritual leaders at the collapse site, where heavy machinery picked through the rubble and mourners left flowers and photos.

Sosa said faith leaders hope to bring peace to the grieving families.

“I’m hoping that they have some closure as we continue to pray for them,” he said.

The change from search and rescue to recovery was somber. Hours before the transition Wednesday, rescue workers stood at solemn attention, and clergy members hugged a line of local officials while many of them sobbed.

An accordion player unseen on a nearby tennis court played Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which was followed by a piccolo playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said Wednesday crews remained committed to doing whatever it takes to finish the job.

“The resources are still there. The men and women are still there. The support is still there,” said Jadallah, who began crying silently after he spoke.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said he expects the recovery effort will take several more weeks.

Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building, allowing rescuers access to new areas of debris.

Some voids where survivors could have been trapped did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no one was found alive. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims. Because the building fell in the early morning hours, many were found dead in their beds.

No one had been pulled out alive since the first hours after the 12-story building fell on June 24.

Meanwhile, authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse and at least six lawsuits have been filed by Champlain Towers families.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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