Death toll rises to 24 in Florida condo collapse, remainder of building to be torn down

Demolition workers will bring down the remainder of a partially collapsed condo building in South Florida, possibly as soon as Sunday, ahead of an approaching storm that has heightened concerns that the structure could crumble dangerously on its own, officials said Saturday.

With Tropical Storm Elsa looming in the Caribbean and forecast to move toward the state in the coming days, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the building in Surfside, Fla., is “tottering” and “structurally unsound” and demolishing it is the prudent thing to do.

“If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard.”

The confirmed death toll from the collapsed 12-storey Champlain Towers South, meanwhile, rose to 24 with the discovery of two more bodies in the rubble, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. There were 124 people still unaccounted for.

Search and rescue personnel work at the site of a collapsed Florida condominium complex in this handout image from July 2, 2021. (Miami-Dade Fire Department/Reuters)

Officials believe what’s left of the building can be brought down as soon as Sunday with little interruption to search and rescue efforts, DeSantis said. Concerns had already been mounting over the past week that the damaged structure was at risk of failure, endangering the crews below and complicating the search.

“The fear was that [Elsa] may take the building down for us and take it down in the wrong direction,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Elsa was downgraded Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 110 kn/h as it brushed past the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The long-term forecast track showed it heading toward Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, though some models would carry it into the Gulf of Mexico or up the Atlantic Coast. Weather officials warned that it could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the Miami area.

“So we can’t let our guard down,” U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda said. “You still need to be watching this very closely.”

Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team walk Saturday near the Champlain Towers South condo building, where dozens of victims remain missing more than a week after it partially collapsed in Surfside, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press)

Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told relatives of the missing during a morning briefing that the building would be brought down “as soon as possible. First thing tomorrow.”

But he cautioned that there “may be some hiccups” and a follow-up meeting was to be held in the afternoon to finalize details. The demolition could be a precarious operation as experts enter the building to bore into the structure to install explosives.

Concerns about full collapse

Concerns over its stability have curtailed the search in adjacent areas, and shifts detected by monitors early Thursday prompted a 15-hour suspension of the entire effort until engineers determined it was safe to resume.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and his wife, Casey, leave flags at a makeshift memorial near the Champlain Towers South condo building on Saturday. (Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press)

Once it is demolished, the remnants will be removed immediately with the intent of giving rescuers access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest, Jadallah said. That could give a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbour survivors.

No one has been rescued since the first hours after the June 24 collapse.

The demolition would temporarily suspend the search, but officials hope not for long. Some families had asked to be able to return to the building to retrieve personal belongings, but will not be allowed to do so.

Rescue workers continue to look through rubble for survivors at the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South Condo building in Surfside, Fla., on Saturday. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/The Associated Press)

“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” DeSantis said.

“I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that, but I don’t think there’s any way you can let somebody go up in that building given the shape that it’s in now.”

The governor also declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm’s arrival.

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