Death toll rises to 86 as recovery teams battle inclement weather at Surfside collapse site
(CNN) — The death toll from the Surfside, Florida, condo tower collapse rose to 86 on Saturday as recovery efforts were briefly halted after a lighting strike, officials said.
Search teams have been recovering victims more quickly now that a portion of the tower that remained standing was demolished and is no longer a threat to collapse, according to Florida Fire Marshall and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
On Monday, a day after the demolition of the standing portion of Champlain Towers South, the death toll stood at 28. The building partially collapsed on June 24.
By Saturday morning, the toll reached 86 after more victims were recovered from the rubble, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference.
Sixty-two of the 86 victims have been identified and 61 next of kin notified, with 211 people accounted for and 43 others potentially unaccounted for, according to the mayor.
Authorities have been cross referencing names from a list of residents with US Postal Service and driver’s license information, Levine Cava said.
“We can only truly account for a missing person who is deceased once an identification is made,” the mayor said.
Crews at the site paused their work briefly Saturday morning because of lighting, but recovery efforts resumed within an hour, Levine Cava said. The work will continue despite rain that is expected throughout the day.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department Chief Alan Cominsky said the timeline for completion of recovery efforts was 14 to 21 days.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said crews removing rubble from the recently demolished section of the building may complete their work “a lot sooner than many expected.”
Burkett described the progress in removing debris as intense, saying “much of the original pile is at ground level or below. ”
The city is setting up a fund for downtown businesses affected by recovery efforts, Burkett said.
Patronis said the crews are paying the same attention to the importance of the task.
“One thing I can assure you is the dogs are still on the site. The infrared equipment is still being used. The cameras are still being used. The task forces that are here … are the same level of skills that were here with FEMA task forces,” he said. “They’re all still working. What’s happening right now is no different than five days ago.”
In an interview with CNN, Chief Nichole Notte of the Florida Task Force 2 said there has been an emotional toll for all the workers.
“I feel like I’m physically digging, but I’m also emotionally digging for more strength to continue,” she said.
Focus on the investigation
Meanwhile, officials have turned more of their attention to the investigation and to ensuring other structures in the area are safe.
Experts have already begun their investigation by examining Champlain Towers North, a sister building that is “substantially the same as the building that came down,” Burkett said.
“We have been in there several times now. We have taken out samples. We’ve done the ground-penetrating radar. We’re trying to determine the amount of steel, the thickness of the slabs, so we’re trying to compile all that information and see exactly if there is some indication of weakness,” Burkett told CNN on Friday.
“I talked to the engineer today, and he’s ready to make a determination as soon as he gets results back and let the residents of that building know whether he feels they are safe or not.”
The north towers building was evacuated for safety concerns.
Burkett said he urged other condo board members in the area to inspect their structure.
“We’ve given them a series of boxes to check in order to make sure that their buildings are as safe as they can be, given especially we don’t know why this building fell down,” Burkett said.
Patronis said that he thinks it’s important for investigators to compare North and South Champlain Towers.
“I’ve advised them to pull the minutes of Champlain Towers North board over the last 40 years and compare to the minutes of South and see if both boards have made the same investments over the last 40 years.”
More structural concerns elsewhere
Employees at a local government building have been advised to work from home for safety reasons.
All staff at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse were directed to immediately begin a work-from-home protocol on Friday following safety concerns revealed in an engineer’s report of the building, according to a statement from local officials.
The report found safety issues with various floors and recommended floors 16 and above be closed to staff while repairs are completed, Levine Cava, Circuit Court Chief Judge Nushin G. Sayfie and Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin said in a joint statement.
“Following this report, we are taking all necessary precautions and directing all Courthouse staff at 73 W Flagler Street to work from home beginning immediately while the repairs can be completed,” Miami-Dade officials said in the statement. “Over the last year throughout the pandemic all Courthouse staff was already working remotely and only recently returned to the building, and we are moving quickly to re-activate our remote work plan.”
Last week, residents in Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach were also asked to evacuate after a report determined the condo building was structurally and electrically unsafe based on a delinquent recertification report for the almost 50-year-old building, City Manager Arthur H. Sorey III previously said.
How the engineer is examining the building
Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer hired by the town of Surfside to investigate the collapse took CNN on a tour of Champlain Tours North on Friday.
Kilsheimer said his team has been at the north tower for two days, using ground-penetrating radar to check the thickness of the concrete and collecting samples.
Kilsheimer said he has not seen anything that concerns him.
“The thing that I’m looking for is anything that would warn me … to get people out of the building,” he said. “I’ve not seen anything like that at this point in time.”
Other buildings in the area will soon receive letters from the mayor advising them to take the necessary steps to assure residents their buildings are safe, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CNN.
Regardless of the age of the building, the city is recommending the hiring of an engineer to review structural drawings and review basements, as well as a geotechnical engineer to examine the foundation.
“The recommendations are made in an abundance of caution based on the current status of the investigation,” the letter said. “They are intended to serve as an interim methodology to afford residents some peace of mind until the forensic investigation progresses further.”
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