Death toll in Florida condominium collapse rises to 24

Building Collapse Miami
U.S. Coast Guard boats patrol in front of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, ahead of a planned visit to the site by President Joe Biden, on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Rescue efforts at the site of the partially collapsed condominium building were halted Thursday out of concern about the stability of the remaining structure, officials said.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(CNN) – The death toll in last week’s partial collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Florida, has risen to 24, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday morning.

The number of people unaccounted for is 124, Levine Cava said.

Also, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he anticipates demolition of the still-standing portion of the building to happen before Tropical Storm Elsa hits the state.

The demolition would “entail minimal work stoppage” in terms of the search and rescue operations in the rubble of the already-collapsed portion, the governor said.

The demolition could happen as early as Sunday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the timeline has not been finalized, as due diligence is being done. But she said officials’ previous thinking about the timeline — that it couldn’t be done before Elsa arrived — changed after officials spoke with a demolition expert who indicated it could be done sooner.

[Original story, published at 10:27 a.m. ET]

The remaining portion of the residential building that partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida, is not structurally sound and is behaving in ways that indicate it may fall down, a county attorney said in a court filing late Friday.

Search and rescue crews were under “immediate threat” due to the building’s instability and Hurricane Elsa, which is in the Caribbean and could impact parts of Florida as a tropical storm early next week, said David Murray, the attorney for Miami-Dade County.

Nearly 55 of the 136 units of the Champlain Towers South, located just north of Miami Beach, pancaked to the ground in the early hours of June 24. The death toll is 22 so far, and 126 people were unaccounted for of Friday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

Levine Cava on Friday signed an order allowing crews to demolish the remaining structure — but said officials still were trying to determine when the demolition would happen. The demolition won’t happen before Elsa passed, and likely will not happen for weeks, the mayor said.

Levine Cava told CNN Friday that it was too early to determine whether Surfside is in danger from Elsa, adding that preparations have begun.

“We’ll be monitoring the storm so that if it seems that the wind strength will be too high for us to safely continue to search and rescue, we’ll have to put a pause.”

Search and rescue operations continued Saturday morning at the site, where teams have been scouring concrete rubble up to 16 feet deep.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told CNN Friday that when it comes time to demolish the parts of the structure still standing, he believes searchers would suspend work but then resume it when the demolition is done.

Murray’s court filing said a collapse of the remaining structure would “cause the release of hazardous household materials, particulate matter, and will pose fire risk.”

“An uncontrolled collapse of the structure — which is surrounded by residential property, and which is currently being worked and secured by hundreds of fire rescue personnel, police officers, and other government employees — poses significant risk to human life and property,” Murray wrote in the filing.

Fire department confirm member’s child found in the rubble

One of the latest confirmed deaths was that of a 7-year-old girl, the daughter of a member of the Miami Department of Fire and Rescue, officials said Friday.

Members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team on Florida Task Force 2 recovered the girl’s body Thursday night, Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban said in a statement.

The girl’s father did not find her body, officials said, adding that other team members alerted him Thursday night. The girl’s name was not made public at the request of the family.

Officials Friday released the names of three people who died in the collapse. Bonnie Epstein, 56; Claudio Bonnefoy, 85 and Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69 were recovered over the past two days.

Criticism of the former Surfside building official

Aamid the increased scrutiny of the condo board and its response to a 2018 report citing “major structural damage,” the actions of the city are also getting fresh attention.

Surfside’s former building official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, assured residents of Champlain Towers South that their building was “in very good shape” in November 2018, despite having received a report warning of “major structural damage.”

He worked for the city of Miami Beach as a senior building inspector from about 2007 to 2013. In an April 2012 email, Prieto’s boss expressed frustration with Prieto’s attendance issues.

“[I] am having problems with him for coming late, not calling on time when sick, forgetting to punch in or out, not answering the phone, etc. I suggest to have a meeting with him to establish disciplinary actions,” the email stated, noting that Prieto missed inspections that day.

Prieto had emailed his boss earlier that afternoon saying he had “been fighting a sinus infection for almost a year” and “had a bad reaction to [his] medications.”

He was suspended weeks later for missing work twice within a 12-month period without his supervisor’s authorization on two occasions. A 2013 performance review stated that he was absent an excessive number of days and arrived late 22 times in a one-year period, according to documents, which were first reported by The New York Times.

A 2007 memo about Prieto’s initial hiring in Miami Beach stated that he brought “extensive industry experience and education” to the job. A spokesperson for the city told CNN he left the job in good standing.

Prieto has not responded to CNN’s multiple requests for comment.

Prieto led the building department in Surfside in 2018 when it became the target of mounting complaints by residents and contractors — so much so that the town manager at the time told CNN he placed the office under administrative review.

The city of Doral, Florida, said it began reviewing eight projects Prieto had worked on since arriving in the position in May “out of an abundance of caution.”

“The internal review of the work done by Mr. Prieto is an ongoing process by our licensed experts,” a spokesperson for Doral said Friday in a statement.

Condo association challenges

Max Friedman, a former member of the condo association, told CNN on Friday that board resignations — largely over how to find the $15 million that was needed to fix the building’s many structural issues — held up the much-needed repairs.

“I would never quit a board — I think that’s terrible,” said Friedman, who was a member from 2011 until 2016 and lives in Manhattan. When asked about the general sentiment among residents, he said, “there was confusion” and he personally felt the resignations of board members were “inappropriate.”

As the investigation continues into what led to the partial collapse, public scrutiny has turned to the condo board.

“We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy,” the board said Friday in a statement.

Still, Friedman was careful to note that he didn’t think the board could have possibly known that the building was in immediate danger.

“The township didn’t tell us,” said Friedman, referring to Prieto, who was Surfside’s building official at the time.

Friedman described Champlain Towers South as a tight-knit community of residents from all over the world. He said one of the residents he was close with is among the confirmed dead, and other friends are unaccounted for.

“Every civil engineer from here to the moon is now drawing conclusions,” Friedman said. “Eventually, it’ll be determined what caused this.”