SURFISDE.— On a day when President Biden was visiting the site of the tragic condo collapse in this beachside town, rescue efforts were halted for more than 12 hours over concerns that the remaining portions of the Champlain Towers South could collapse threatening rescue workers.
Rescuers were able to begin combing through the debris again by early evening, but a larger portion of the debris pile was placed off-limits to rescuers because of the risk of falling debris, something rescue officials refer to as “widow-makers.”
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But while rescue efforts resumed, officials said it was likely the remaining tower would have to be demolished in a controlled manner to finish to rescue efforts.
Meanwhile, a tropical storm brewing in the Atlantic threatens the area in the coming days.
The delay in rescue operations a week after the tower collapsed lessened the already slim odds of finding any more survivors of the tragedy.
Eighteen people were confirmed dead and 145 were unaccounted for when rescue operations were halted a week after the building shockingly collapsed in the early hours of June 24.
Rescue work ceased shortly after 2 a.m. when engineers noted that three cracks had expanded in the remaining portion of the building and one column supporting the structure had shifted 8 to 10 inches.
Safe to resume the rescue
But by late afternoon engineers it determined that it was safe for rescuers to begin searching through at least portions of the pile of remaining rubble.
“We’re continuing to use the technology, the cameras, the drones and more to search in the area of concern and our team of engineers is doing ongoing testing and evaluation as we work to expand the search area as quickly as possible as it becomes safe to do so,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.
But Cava said it was likely that the remaining portion of the building will be need to be demolished to complete the rescue and recovery operations.
State Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis said engineers were researching ways to safely bring the remaining portion of the building down. Complicating the efforts is the fact that the site is hemmed in by the pile of the rubble to the east, buildings to the north and south, and Collins Avenue, the main beachfront road to the west. Across Collins Avenue is a park and tennis center.
Patronis said he believed that some type of tarp arrangement could be set up between the building and the pile could be brought down nearly vertical.
Still, it could be take weeks to plan and prepare for such a demolition, said Scott Nacheman, an engineer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We are currently looking at several different methodologies and as we get technical data, as we get stakeholder information, those decisions will be made,” Nacheman said.
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In a “best case scenario” it will be weeks before a demolition timeline can be established, he said.
While local officials were mulling over ways to safely resume rescue operations, Biden was meeting with rescuers and family members of those missing.
“Y’know, most of the time people don’t really fully appreciate you really till they need you,” the president told the first responders. “What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with, even psychologically, to deal with. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Biden, who was accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden, spent three hours speaking privately with family members of those killed or missing as well of those who escaped the building.
“They’re going through hell,” Biden said. “Jill and I wanted them to know that we’re with them. That the country is with them. Our message today is that we’re here for you, as one nation.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett shared Thursday that a 12-year-old girl, Ellie Shella, he had encountered praying days before had met and been comforted by Biden.
Burkett called it the “best part” of the meeting Biden had with families affected by last week’s collapse.
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Burkett had previously described meeting with the girl who was awaiting news on her father, who was inside the building at the time of the collapse. The mayor said she wasn’t crying, but reading a Jewish prayer to herself and “just lost.” Burkett said he shared the same story with Biden on behalf of the young girl, who wanted to meet with the president.
Shella’s father was later confirmed dead.
“When I passed him the picture of the 12-year-old girl he immediately said ‘Bring her to me,'” Burkett said.
Burkett said Biden was “grandfatherly and wonderful” and that it made the girl’s day.
The president also met with local and state officials and promised that neither politics nor bureaucracy would hamper rescue efforts.
“We’ve come together,” Biden said, as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis sat to the right of the president, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava sat to the left. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott sat across from the president. “This is life and death.”
“This is an unprecedented, devastating disaster unlike anyone has ever seen,” Levine Cava said. “It’s shocked the world, and the fact that we’ve all come together is what gives us hope, is what gives us strength and inspiration.”
DeSantis in his remarks noted that there has been “no bureaucracy” when working with the federal government, saying “we’re literally getting requests routed from local to state to federal in no time and the approvals happening.”
“There will be no bureaucracy,” Biden responded.
Thursday morning Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky shared a haunting story about the early hours of the rescue efforts. Cominsky said rescue workers could hear a woman’s voice calling from within the rubble and worked furiously to reach her but were unsuccessful.
“Eventually we didn’t hear it anymore,” Cominsky said of the voice.
Miguel Gutierrez, a freelance video journalist covering the collapse for numerous televisions stations, has been working with a particularly heavy heart, he said.
A friend of his was among the missing, and until Thursday morning, Gutierrez held onto the hope that his friend died quickly in his sleep and did not suffer.
On Thursday, he learned that was not the case.
“They found him in the stairway,” Guiterrez said, tearing up. “He was running for his life.”
Unable to take time off work to greive, Gutierrez said, he has continued to film twice daily press conferences where officials update the media on the progress of rescue efforts and the number of deceased.
To make matters worse, he said, the collapsed building is only four blocks from the apartment he has called home for 20 years, and he fears for his many friends who are first responders risking their lives each day in the rubble.
“I am totally convinced as soon as this situation starts to finish, I’m sure, I’m emotionally going to be broken,” he said. “Because right now, I have to separate my human being part from my professional part.”
Bven as rescue efforts restarted, officials also had an eye Tropical Storm Elsa. which is churning off the coast of South America. South Florida is in the storm’s “cone of uncertainty,” but it is too far away to predict what, if any, impact Elsa could would have on rescue efforts.
Levine Cava said National Weather Service officials had told her the high winds could possibly begin being felt in the are late Sunday evening. While such winds might not threaten to knock down the remain portion of the building, it would increase the likelihood of falling debris threatening rescue workers.
The president said the families of those buried in the rubble of the doomed building are realistic about the slim chances of seeing their loved ones alive again, but they at least want to recover their bodies.
Biden’s first wife and their infant daughter died in a vehicle accident when he was 29. The couple’s two young sons survived, but eldest son Beau Biden died of cancer at 46 in 2015.
Spending time with them, Biden said, brought back memories of his own grief.
“It’s bad enough to lose somebody, but the hard part, the really hard part, is to not know whether they’ve survived or not,’’ he said.