MIAMI (AP) – Firefighters on Friday declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed condominium building in Florida, concluding a month of painstaking work to clear layers of dangerous debris that were once piled up on several floors .
The June 24 oceanfront collapse of the Champlain South Towers left 97 people dead, and at least one more person has yet to be identified. Much of the site was swept away and the rubble moved to a warehouse in Miami. While the forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the warehouse debris, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.
Except for the first hours after the collapse, the survivors never emerged. Search teams spent weeks battling the dangers of the rubble, including an unstable part of the building teetering above, a recurring fire, and the sweltering summer heat and Florida thunderstorms. They traversed over 14,000 tonnes (13,000 metric tons) of broken concrete and rebar, often working block by bollard, rock by rock, before finally declaring the mission complete.
The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue urban search and rescue team withdrew from the site on Friday in a convoy of fire trucks and other vehicles, slowly making their way to their headquarters for a press conference to d ‘announce that the research was officially over.
In a ceremony, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky greeted firefighters who worked 12-hour shifts while camping at the site.
“It’s obviously devastating. It’s obviously a difficult situation at all levels, ”Cominsky said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women who represent Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.”
Officials declined to say whether they have an additional set of human remains on hand that pathologists are struggling to identify or whether the search for that final set of remains is continuing.
If found, Estelle Hedaya would bring the death toll to 98.
Hedaya was an outgoing 54-year-old woman who loved to travel and enjoyed engaging in conversations with strangers. His younger brother Ikey donated DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the research efforts for himself.
“As we enter the second month alone, without any other family, we feel helpless,” he told The Associated Press on Friday. He said he receives frequent updates from the medical examiner’s office.
Leah Sutton, who had known Hedaya from birth and considered herself a second mother to her, fears she will be forgotten.
“They seem to be packing their bags and congratulating everyone on a job well done. And yes, they deserve all the accolades, but then they found Estelle.
The dead included members of the region’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of the first lady of Paraguay, her family and their nanny, as well as a local vendor, his wife and their two young daughters.
The collapse fueled a race to inspect other aging residential towers in Florida and beyond, and it raised broader questions about state regulations governing condominium associations and building safety.
Shortly after the disaster, it became clear that warnings about the Champlain South Towers, which opened in 1981, had gone unheeded. A 2018 engineering report detailed cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking lot and other issues that would cost nearly $ 10 million to fix.
Repairs did not take place and the estimate rose to $ 15 million this year as owners of the building’s 136 units and its board of directors fought over the cost, especially after an inspector the town of Surfside told them the building was safe.
A complete collapse was almost impossible to imagine. As many officials said in the early days of the disaster, buildings of this size do not simply collapse in the United States outside of a terrorist attack. Even tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes rarely bring them down.
The ultimate fate of the property where the building once stood has yet to be determined. A judge presiding over several lawsuits over the collapse wants the property to be sold at market rates, which would bring in around $ 100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead.
“All options are on the table,” Miami-Dade circuit judge Michael Hanzman said this week at a hearing.
The disaster was one of the country’s deadliest engineering failures. A set of overhead walkways collapsed at a Kansas City hotel in 1981, killing 114 people attending a dance. But it was not the structure itself. A Washington, DC movie theater collapsed in 1922, killing 98 people. But it happened after a blizzard dumped feet of snow on the flat roof.
In the weeks following the collapse, a 28-story courthouse in downtown Miami, built in 1928, and two apartment buildings were closed after inspectors discovered structural problems. They will remain closed until repairs are made.
The first 911 calls arrived at around 1:20 a.m., when Champlain residents reported that the parking garage had collapsed. A woman standing on her balcony called her husband, who was on a business trip, and told him that the pool had fallen into the garage.
Then, in an instant, a section of the L-shaped building fell straight down. Eight seconds later, another section followed, leaving 35 people alive in the standing section. In the early hours, a teenager was rescued and firefighters believed more could be found alive. They took hope in the noises emanating from inside the pile that could have been the tapping of survivors, but in retrospect the sounds were coming from moving debris.
Rescue teams worked tirelessly, even when smoke and heat from a fire inside the standing part of the building hampered their efforts. They persisted when temperatures hit the upper 90 degrees (35 degrees Celsius) under the scorching sun, some struggling until they needed IVs to replenish fluids. They continued when Tropical Storm Elsa passed nearby and poured down torrential rains. They only left the pile when lightning developed.
The part of the building that remained standing posed another serious threat as it stood precariously above the workers. Authorities ordered its demolition on July 4.
Ultimately, the crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead survived the initial collapse, Cominsky said.
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida contributed to this report.