Florida condo collapse: 9 dead as families privately visit disaster area

As the death toll from the collapsed condominium in Surfside, Florida rose Sunday to nine, relatives were growing increasingly desperate for news and worried about the slow progress and dwindling hopes.

No one has been pulled alive from the pile since hours after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building Thursday morning. Some family members were taken by bus Sunday to a location near the site after relatives frustrated with the pace of rescue efforts demanded to visit the scene.

Some families had hoped their visit would allow them to shout messages to loved ones possibly buried deep inside the pile.

Buses brought several groups of relatives to a place where they could view the pile and the rescuers at work. As relatives returned to a nearby hotel, several paused to embrace as they got off the bus. Others walked slowly with arms around each other back to the hotel entrance.

"We are just waiting for answers. That’s what we want," said Dianne Ohayon, whose parents, Myriam and Arnie Notkin were in the building. "It’s hard to go through these long days and we haven’t gotten any answers yet."

Authorities said their efforts are still a search-and-rescue operation. Alan Cominsky, chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, said they are holding out hope of finding someone alive, but they must be slow and methodical.


Cheri Fine (L) and Mark (no last name provided) visit a makeshift memorial at the site of a collapsed building in Surfside, Florida, north of Miami Beach, on June 26, 2021. (Photo by Andrea Sarcos/AFP via Getty Images)

Scores of rescue workers remained on the massive pile of rubble, searching for survivors but so far only finding bodies and human remains.

In a meeting with families on Saturday evening, people moaned and wept as Miami Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah explained why he could not answer their repeated questions about how many victims they had found.

"It’s not necessarily that we’re finding victims, OK? We’re finding human remains," Jadallah said, according to the video posted on Instagram.

Every time crews find remains, they clean the area and remove the remains. They work with a rabbi to ensure any religious rituals are done properly, Jadallah said.

"So the question is, is why is things taking so long?" he said, "What we’re doing is making sure that everything is followed to a ‘T.’"

Authorities said their efforts are still a search-and-rescue operation. Alan Cominsky, chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, said they are holding out hope of finding someone alive, but they must be slow and methodical.

"The debris field is scattered throughout, and it’s compact, extremely compact," he said.

Debris must be stabilized and shored up as they go.

"If there is a void space, we want to make sure we’re given every possibility of a survivor. That’s why we can’t just go in and move things erratically, because that’s going to have the worst outcome possible," he said.

So far, he said, they have not come across any voids.


Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 26, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In meetings with authorities, family members repeatedly pushed rescuers to do more. One asked why they could not surgically remove the largest pieces of cement with cranes, to try to uncover bigger voids where survivors might be found.

"There’s not giant pieces that we can easily surgically remove," replied Maggie Castro, of the fire rescue agency, who described herself as "one of the people out there attempting to find your family members."

"They’re not big pieces. Pieces are crumbled, and they’re being held together by the rebar that’s part of the construction. So if we try to lift that piece, even as carefully, those pieces that are crumbling can fall off the sides and disturb the pile," Castro said.

She said they try to cut rebar in strategic places and remove large pieces, but that they have to remove them in a way that nothing will fall onto the pile.

"We are doing layer by layer," Castro said. "It doesn’t stop. It’s all day. All night."

More than 150 people remain unaccounted for.

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Earlier in the day, more details emerged from a 2018 engineering report that found "major structural damage" to the Champlain Towers South building, which collapsed Thursday without warning. 

The engineering firm estimated that the major repairs the building needed would cost more than $9 million, according to emails released Sunday. The work had not been done by the time the building collapsed.

The release of the cost estimate from three years ago followed the earlier publication of another document from the firm showing the ground-floor pool deck of the building was resting on a concrete slab that had "major structural damage" and needed to be extensively repaired. That report also uncovered "abundant cracking and spalling" of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage.

The quoted $9 million in repairs included more than $3.8 million for garage, entrance and pool remediation and nearly $3.2 million for fixes to the exterior façade.

The report did not warn of imminent danger from the damage, and it is unclear if any of the damage observed was responsible for the collapse.

A federal agency specializing in disaster losses and structure failures is sending a half dozen scientists and engineers to collect direct information for determining whether to pursue a more thorough study.

The first team members arrived Friday, said Jason Averill, an official at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That agency also investigated the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and more recently, Hurricane Maria devastation in Puerto Rico, among other disasters.

Separately, the government of Israel said it was sending a team of engineering and rescue specialists to aid the search. Israeli media have reported that some 20 citizens of that country were believed among the missing.

Another 22 people unaccounted for were from Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay, including relatives of Paraguayan first lady Silvana de Abdo Benítez. 

RELATED: Florida condo collapse: Smoldering debris slowing rescue efforts as 156 still missing

Some loved ones have found scattered mementos among the flying debris. 

Mike Noriega, whose 92-year-old grandmother Hilda Noriega is still missing, found an old picture of her with her late husband and their infant son, and a birthday card that friends from her prayer group sent two weeks earlier with the acronym "ESM," Spanish for "hand-delivered," scrawled across the yellow envelope with a butterfly etching.

"There was a message in the mess of all this," Noriega said. "It means not to give up hope. To have faith."

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.