The transition on Thursday from a rescue to a recovery effort at the site of the condominium collapse in Surfside proved to be more than semantics as officials talked of protocols for collecting and returning personal items — from jewelry to firearms — found in the rubble to even waiving survivors’ property taxes.
But the priority, they insisted, remained the ongoing search for victims. Ten more bodies were recovered, raising to 64 the death toll from the June 24 implosion of the Champlain Towers South complex, said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
“We are working around the clock to recover victims and to give closure to the families as fast as possible,” she said.
Levine Cava reported that 40 of the bodies had been identified and 39 next of kin were also identified. Police officials identified another one of the fatalities Thursday as Gary Cohen, 58, whose body was one of the 18 recovered Wednesday.
“So, reporting these numbers has not gotten any easier,” Levine Cava added.
Another 200 people have been confirmed to be safe. Questions, however, still surround the status of a group of 76 people Levine Cava said were “potentially unaccounted for.”
Those are people whose whereabouts are unknown, for various reasons, and Levine Cava said law enforcement officials continue to follow tips in hopes of confirming they were not on the Champlain premises that night.
Despite the somber change in mission, the recovery effort remained an all-hands on deck operation with heavy cranes, dump carting away debris trucks and buses ferrying the crews manning the different shifts to and from the site.
Their were two brief pauses from the arduous search. One stoppage occurred at 1:20 a.m. when crews observed a moment of silence to mark the two-week anniversary of the collapse.
Another took place in the midafternoon when some family members asked to visit the scene. There, crew members joined them in another moment of silence, and a Miami-Dade police helicopter circled in an aerial salute.
The painful and bitter decision late Wednesday to focus on recovering bodies — ostensibly giving up hope anyone will be found alive in the rubble — had no apparent impact on the pace of work at the site of what the town’s mayor has called “a catastrophe of global proportions.”
A Miami-Dade Fire Rescue official said late Wednesday that the way the building collapsed, in “pancake” fashion, did not create triangular pockets, which are voids or spaces in which people in previous disasters have been able to survive until searchers got to them.
“A pancake collapse, unfortunately, is a floor, or a wall, on top of a floor, on top of a floor, on top of a floor,” said Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah.
Levine Cava’s announcement that crews would “transition” to recovery efforts then spurred an outpouring of grief and collective solace at a memorial wall along Harding Avenue blocks to the west of where the Champlain condos once stood. Relatives of those who died and Surfside residents, along with faith leaders and rescue workers and local officials, congregated to pray and reflect throughout Wednesday evening.
Federal, state officials working to address needs of family members, those left without homes
With the transition, officials at all levels of government said they were working to address the needs of those who have lost loved ones as well as those who have lost their homes and possessions.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said he is exploring, among other initiatives, suspending property taxes that surviving unit owners in Champlain Towers face paying. That, however, may take action by the Florida Legislature.
“We obviously want to do all we can for the survivors, and the family members, to get them on their feet as best as we possibly can,” DeSantis said. “It’s not going to be easy. This is a big void that is going to be felt not just in these families but in this community as a whole.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said she is seeking federal funding to cover the costs of the disaster recovery effort and to help the many people impacted, from those who have lost family members to those who survived but lost the entirety of their possessions.
Wasserman Schultz said “no one budgets, no one plans” for these “unplanned” events, but that federal officials need to react swiftlywhen they occur.
“That’s the job of our team … to help them, if not ever to become whole again, to make sure they can at least start to piece together again the shards of their lives,” she said.
A meticulous search for bodies, personal items
Levine Cava said “extreme care and compassion” is being observed in the retrieval of bodies. Faith leaders, she said, have been embedded with the search teams to ensure bodies are removed in accordance with the dictates of various faiths.
The mayor also said protocols and procedures have been set up to manage recovery efforts and catalog a multitude of personal items — including jewelry, legal documents, wallets, iPads, photographs, religious items and firearms — being recovered from the rubble.
Why the pace of recovery efforts is picking up
In just 24 hours,officials at the scene reported finding 24 additional bodies as the pace in which victims are located picks up.
The reason is largely due to the decision made Sunday to implode the remaining part of the structure that was left standing after the initial collapse. That decision was based on engineering reports that concluded that the western portion of the building was unstable and posed a risk to rescue workers.
Recovery efforts were slowed when first responders were forced for safety reasons to avoid or cease searching certain areas of the debris piles out of fear the structure could come crashing down on them.
As as result, officials said rescue workers were largely combing through the rubble in the eastern portion the catastrophe site. Once the implosion took place, rescuers were able to access the part of the building where many of the master bedrooms and sleeping quarters were located.
Since the collapse occurred in the middle of the night, as many of the residents were sleeping, it stands to reason that many more bodies will be found much quicker as recovery teams cover those previously unsearched areas.