Live Updates: With Demolition Looming, Search Is Halted in Surfside


Credit…Miami Dade Fire Department

Workers were preparing to demolish the part of the Champlain Towers South condominium that was still standing after a partial collapse buried dozens of people in rubble in Surfside, Fla.

“We are proceeding as quickly as we possibly can,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said Saturday evening at a news conference.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, the search and rescue mission on the mammoth mound of concrete and twisted steel stopped as engineers prepared to raze what is left of the 13-story structure. Two dozen people are known to have died, and 121 people are still missing, the mayor said.

The mayor said rescue work would resume as soon as emergency workers received clearance that the area was safe again for searching. She said engineers preparing the demolition requested the halt.

Ms. Levine Cava said officials still hoped to demolish the remainder of the damaged building before the arrival of strong winds and heavy rains from Tropical Storm Elsa, expected late on Monday or early Tuesday. Structural engineers are still working to determine the exact timing of the demolition, she said.

“What is being looked at is something of tremendous consequence,” Ms. Levine Cava said. “It needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully.”

Because of the rush to get it done ahead of the storm, she said, federal investigators have been mobilized to gather and document as much evidence as they can about the current state of the building and the possible causes of the collapse before it is brought down.

The mayor said no additional evacuations were likely to be necessary for the demolition, though the adjacent buildings that have already been evacuated and nearby vacant lots would be cleared of people.

Residents of Crestview Towers condominium stood outside the building on Friday as it was being evacuated. The city of North Miami Beach deemed the building unsafe after receiving an engineer’s report outlining structural and electrical problems.
Credit…Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA, via Shutterstock

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Miguel Jiménez was busy at work Friday, detailing a car, when a neighbor called. They had an hour to evacuate their apartments at Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach.

He immediately started thinking about the loud cracking sound he heard last week, and the time a pipe burst, flooding all the units in the building. The floors were still ruined, and the building’s concrete columns have seen sturdier days.

“Everything is damaged in this building, everything,” he said, standing beside the yellow crime-scene tape outside the building where Mr. Jiménez and his family have lived for six years.

Mayors in many cities and Miami-Dade County ordered audits of all buildings over 40 years old, which were supposed to be getting certifications at that age. Crestview’s certification was nine years overdue, and the building was cited by the city of North Miami Beach every year that it did not comply, a spokeswoman for the city said.

City records indicate that Crestview has been fined a total of nearly $600,000 by the city since 2014, though the records do not specify what the fines were for.

After the collapse in Surfside, seven miles away, the city nudged harder. North Miami Beach’s city manager ordered his own audit on Tuesday, and Crestview was sent another notice and fined.

Crestview’s building manager finally showed up at the city building department on Friday, with an 11-page engineering report that was dated in January. The report determined that the building was both structurally and electrically unsafe for continued occupancy.

The president of the condominium board referred questions to the board’s lawyer, Mariel Tollinchi.

Ms. Tollinchi said that the board disagreed with the need for the evacuation, and that the engineer’s report from January made the cracks and other problems seem worse than they were. She said the board had hired another engineer to provide more detail, and was gathering estimates for the necessary repair work.

The structural repairs were coming in at around $250,000, but the necessary electrical work was priced “in the millions,” she said, adding that unit owners were already paying up to $300 a month in assessments to finance the work. Residents should be back in the building within 30 days, Ms. Tollinchi said.

On its website, the management company posted a notice 11 days ago saying that it was working on improvements, including roofing, a new generator, and new lighting systems indoors and out. It said the city had demanded the lighting work for the 40-year certification, “which is something we could not postpone any longer.” The notice did not mention the cracked concrete and corroded rebar outlined in the engineer’s report.

Residents who evacuated on Friday were told that they could stay at a shelter on the county fairgrounds, a 40-minute drive away. “I would rather sleep in my car,” Mr. Jiménez said.

He wondered whether the unit owners, the city, the management company — anybody — would help relocate rental tenants like him who could not come up with at least $6,000 for security deposits and advance rent on another apartment.

Estefania Grajales, 25, and her husband, Holman J. Pérez, said they were napping Friday evening and heard about the evacuation order from a neighbor. Reporters were already outside, and people were rushing around with luggage. Ms. Grajales said it took an hour to get down from the eighth floor, because every time the elevator doors opened, the car was jammed with someone else’s prized possessions.

“Suitcases, bicycles, cabinets, children, everything,” Ms. Grajales said. “This did not happen one day to the next. It was one hour to the next.”

They stayed the night in an inn on Biscayne Blvd. “It was a mo-tel, not a ho-tel,” Mr. Pérez said.

Residents noted that many people in the building were fairly recent immigrants with no family nearby to stay with. Mr. Jimenez is from Venezuela, Ms. Grajales from Colombia, and Mr. Perez from Nicaragua.

Standing outside the building on Saturday hoping to get more information about what would happen with the building, Mr. Perez noted that he had less at stake than some residents did: “I’m a renter, thankfully.”

Miami-Dade County mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, speaking during a news conference where she announced that four more victims had been found in the rubble in Surfside, Fla., on Wednesday.
Credit…Jose A Iglesias/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

At almost every news conference, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava steps to the microphone and delivers awful news: The number of people known to have died in the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. — and the even larger number who are still missing.

The painful ritual has made Ms. Levine Cava, a Democrat less than a year into her tenure as mayor of Miami-Dade County, a regular presence on televisions across the country. And it has brought a voice to the immense grief — and the slow fade of hope — as update after update has passed without rescue crews finding any survivors.

“I am responsible for what’s happening on this site,” Ms. Levine Cava said Friday in an interview, on a day when she announced four additional confirmed deaths, including that of the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter. “It is my obligation to report the hard news. Then, others who have technical information, they provide it to back it up. But it’s my job to give the bad news.”

Ms. Levine Cava, 65, who spent decades as a lawyer and social services executive before entering politics, was little known beyond South Florida before Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24. In the days since, she has become one of the faces of the response: Coordinating government agencies, fielding questions and criticism from the families of the missing, delivering televised messages in English and in Spanish.

Ms. Levine Cava, who took office in November as the first woman to serve as mayor of Florida’s largest county, and the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years, has found herself facing a crisis of a magnitude few local officials ever encounter.

Though she has shared the stage with a long list of elected officials from both parties — from President Biden to Gov. Ron DeSantis to members of Congress and the mayor of Surfside — Ms. Levine Cava has kept the hardest job, announcing the death toll, for herself. Sometimes she pauses as she updates the figures. Sometimes she asks for prayer. Other times she acknowledges the painful wait for those whose loved ones have still not been found.

“She has to give that information — it’s expected,” said Alex Penelas, a former Miami-Dade County mayor who praised Ms. Levine Cava’s response. “But she’s got to give it with compassion, with feeling, with emotion. These are not just numbers. These are lives.”

At many news conferences, Ms. Levine Cava speaks after Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has been omnipresent in Surfside since the collapse.

It was ultimately the mayor’s decision to pause work on Thursday when engineers worried that the rest of the tower could collapse. And it was her decision a day later to order the demolition of that structure, meaning families who escaped will not be able to retrieve their belongings.

“I’m counting on the engineers to tell me it’s unstable — I’m not going to override them on a safety issue like that,” the mayor said. “But I’m going to get involved in what were the factors considered, whether everyone was consulted, whether all the expertise on the field was utilized.”

The demolition was initially expected to take a few weeks to arrange. But on Saturday, officials announced that it would be fast-tracked to take place as soon as Monday, because of an approaching tropical storm.

The mayor also ordered an audit of aging buildings within the county’s jurisdiction, and urged cities to do the same — a step that has already led to the evacuation of a tower in North Miami Beach.

Elena Blasser kept her two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the Champlain Towers South as a beachside gathering place for family reunions. She adored the ocean and the small town of Surfside, Fla., because they reminded her of homes in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

She sank at least $100,000 into renovations when she bought Penthouse 11 a little more than a decade ago. Then the complex’s problems began. Hairline cracks in the pool deck. Newly painted walls that chipped easily. Water pooling in the garage. To pay for it all, the monthly maintenance fees and special assessments grew.

“We’re paying those fees and where are they going?” Ms. Blasser, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher, kept telling her family and neighbors, according to her son Pablo Rodriguez.

Little did she know that the problems identified in the building were about to get much worse. A consultant’s report commissioned in 2018 had identified serious problems of crumbling concrete and corroded rebar — problems that engineers warned had already led to “major structural damage.”

Fixing it, the condo board eventually concluded, would cost an estimated $15 million. Ms. Blasser would have to come up with another $120,000 to pay her share.

Long before half of the Champlain Towers South crumpled to the ground on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving up to 121 unaccounted for — including Ms. Blasser and her mother, Elena Chavez, 88 — the rancor over how the building was run by its condominium association was an open secret known to the relatives and friends of the people who lived there, and even to residents of other nearby buildings.

Search and rescue crews exiting the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Fla., on Monday.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Six emergency medical workers helping with rescue efforts at the site of a collapsed condo in Surfside, Fla., have tested positive for the coronavirus, Alan R. Cominsky, the chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said at a news conference on Saturday.

The workers, who were all part of the same task force, were no longer at the site, Chief Cominsky said, adding that contact tracing had been performed and that 424 members of other Florida task force teams responding to the site had been tested.

Chief Cominsky did not address the conditions of the six workers in his comments. It was unclear whether they had been vaccinated.

The chief told The Miami Herald on Friday that the six emergency medical workers were firefighters from Florida, but that they were not from Miami-Dade.

“We do have our medical procedures in place,” he told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, this is another challenge, but something we’ve been dealing with for over the past year.”

Average daily reports of new cases in Florida have risen by 55 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. Across the state, 65 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

At the news conference on Saturday, Chief Cominsky said the rescue effort would continue with teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana in addition to those from Florida.

Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”

Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”

Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”

Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.

Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.

Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.

Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.

Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.

Also killed in the collapse was Magaly Elena Delgado, 80.





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