SURFSIDE, Fla. — Florida officials on Saturday abruptly moved up plans to demolish the remaining part of a Miami area that condo collapsed on June 24, as the threat of a secondary collapse of the damaged structure looms, potentially endangering rescue crews.
Meanwhile, officials said the death toll from the collapse increased overnight to 24 victims, and 124 people remain missing.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Saturday news conference that the state will pay for all costs of the demolition, which he said should take place within 36 hours. He said officials believe the building can come down before Tropical Storm Elsa is expected to bring strong winds and heavy rainfall to the area early next week.
Governor Ron DeSantis said the tower will likely be brought straight down using some type of explosive charge.
"This building is too unsafe to let people go back in," he said. "This could protect our search and rescue teams."
"You'd hate to see there be another disaster out there if this building falls in the wrong way," he added.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday that the contract has been signed with Controlled Demolition, Inc. for the demolition to begin. She said she signed an order Friday to proceed with the demolition.
Maryland-based Controlled Demolition Inc., more than 70 years old, considers itself a “pioneer of and leader in explosives demolition technology,” according to the company’s website. The company has been involved in several high-profile demolitions, including the One James River Plaza in Richmond, Virginia; the Seattle Kingdome stadium; the remains of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City; and the remains of the World Trade Center in New York.
Controlled Demolition Inc. did not immediately respond to USA TODAY requests for comment via phone and email.
"We're doing everything we can to move forward with demolition as soon as we have a final path to do so," Levine Cava said. On Friday she said she did not believe demolition would be possible before the expected storm impacts hit the region.
"When we spoke at the press event, that was the best information we all had at the particular moment," Levine Cava said. But late Friday, she said new experts came forward to say a faster demolition may be possible.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he met with DeSantis and Levine Cava on Friday to voice concerns about the impending storm affecting the part of the building still standing or causing it to fall in the wrong direction to where search and rescue efforts continue.
"(Levine Cava) went back and took decisive action," he said. "And instead of waiting weeks and allowing bureaucracy to crawl, she's made a very dramatic decision and signed the order to get this building taken down immediately."
Abi Aghayere, a Drexel University engineering professor, told USA TODAY pulling off an implosion demolition in time would require engineers to inspect nearby buildings to determine the potential impact of the explosion, he said
"The way that the structure came down on itself, that’s what implosion tends to do. That way, the debris field is confined, not scattered all over the place. But when you do that, you may have other buildings impacted," he said.
Levine Cava said the proposed demolition has a "very narrow footprint" and officials don't expect additional impacts in the surrounding area or more evacuations.
Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said at a Saturday morning meeting with families that the building would be demolished “as soon as possible. First thing tomorrow.”
He said details of the demolition would be finalized at a follow-up meeting Saturday afternoon. Jadallah said the remnants of the demolished building would be removed immediately to give rescuers access to the garage area that is the focus of the search.
Aghayere told USA TODAY Saturday he had never heard of an implosion demolition project coming together so quickly.
Joshua Galanter, project coordinator at Thunder Demolition Inc. in Miami, said it typically takes months of engineering, preparing and rigging explosives on the main support columns for a controlled implosion.
Tropical Storm Elsa threatens search and rescue efforts
Tropical Storm Elsa sped toward Haiti and the Dominican Republic Saturday morning with much of Florida still within its "cone of uncertainty." Elsa may approach the Florida Keys and southern Florida early next week, bringing strong winds and heavy rainfall, according to the National Hurricane Center.
DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday ahead of the storm.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also signed a local state of emergency Saturday. She said on-site teams continue to monitor the storm and prepare for potential tropical storm force winds and heavy rainfall.
More federal teams have arrived on site, allowing some first responders stationed at the collapse site to shift their attention to storm preparation, Levine Cava said.
Robert Molleda, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said Florida may start to feel the effects of Elsa as early as Monday afternoon through more rain and stronger winds that would continue through Tuesday. If the storm shifts slightly east, he said the area may face more impacts.
"Tropical storm force winds are definitely a possibility, so we can't let our guard down," he said Saturday.
Possible severe weather may further delay search and rescue efforts, Kevin Guthrie of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said earlier this week. His team is working with the National Hurricane Center and state meteorologists to develop contingency plans for severe weather.
Bryan Norcross, hurricane specialist at WPLG-TV Local 10 in South Florida, said Hurricane Elsa approaching the Surfside search-and-rescue site is an "unbelievable confluence of potential events."
“I don’t remember anything like this, for sure. I'm sure people are thinking about the engineering of what that surviving tower could take,” Norcross said.
“It won’t be a super-strong storm. But we don't know what the tolerances of the south tower are. So the bottom line is, if the wind starts blowing it's going to be a dangerous situation with a lot of unknowns,” he added.
Rescuers were already coping with near-daily thunderstorms and lightning, which forced suspensions of rescue efforts.
Second condo evacuated after Surfside collapse prompts audit
City officials in North Miami Beach called for an emergency meeting Saturday after ordering the evacuation of a condominium tower just five miles from last week's building collapse.
Authorities said Friday that the closing of the 156-unit Crestview Towers stems from an audit prompted by the Champlain Towers disaster in nearby Surfside.
“In an abundance of caution, the City ordered the building closed immediately and the residents evacuated for their protection, while a full structural assessment is conducted and next steps are determined,” North Miami Beach City Manager Arthur H. Sorey, III said. “Nothing is more important than the safety and lives of our residents, and we will not rest until we ensure this building is 100% safe.”
North Miami Beach officials said they ordered "a thorough review" of all condo high-rise buildings above five stories high to see if they are in compliance with city and county safety codes.
— Michael James, USA TODAY
Condo developer faces scrutiny for legal, money woes
Developer Nathan Rieber's background and the history of the towers has come under scrutiny since the collapse.
The Canadian lawyer would come to be hailed for his philanthropy, rubbing elbows with celebrities and world leaders, and donating time and money to charitable causes. His South Florida building career was described as a happy accident, a case of a shrewd retiree spotting a property and launching the second act of his business career.
But by the time Reiber was building the Champlain Towers in Surfside in the 1980s, he was facing tax evasion charges in Ontario stemming from siphoning coin laundry money from his apartment buildings there.
— Katie Wedell and Pat Beall, USA TODAY
New documents show potential flaws in condo's original design
Condo board members told residents the 40-year-old building had no waterproofing layers over the garage, exposing it to water intrusion from the time construction was completed in 1981.
The revelation, gleaned from an October 2020 slide show presentation, came from a cache of condo documents provided to USA TODAY by relatives of missing residents. It stands out because the concrete that protected the reinforcing steel rods in the ceiling of the garage was only half as thick as would have been required had it been outside and exposed to so much water, engineering experts told USA TODAY.
It's unclear if those flaws contributed to the building's June 24 collapse that has left 24 confirmed dead, with 124 people still missing through Friday night. Investigators said determining the cause of the disaster could take more than a year.
— Elizabeth Weise, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, Aleszu Bajak and Sudiksha Kochi, USA TODAY
Daughter of Miami firefighter among bodies found
Officials announced Friday the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter was among the bodies found.
"This tragedy has haunted so many of us because so many of us know someone who was in the building or affected by this tragedy," Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Friday at a news conference. "Now, not only do we know someone, but this is someone who is a member of our family, of our fire family."
The father was not involved in the recovery process, but he voluntarily joined the search, officials said, hoping he could help find his daughter and others still missing in the wreckage. The Miami Herald reported the father kept vigil for eight nights after his daughter's home collapsed into the rubble.
Cava called the night "uniquely difficult" for first responders.
"Please keep all of them in your thoughts and prayers," she said. "They truly represent the very best in all of us and we need to be there for them as they are there for us."
When will the rescue operation become a recovery mission?
In the coming days, or possibly hours, authorities may stop rescue missions at the scene of a Miami area condo collapse and begin recovery — a momentous decision that will likely declare that scores of missing people are dead.
Officials have promised not to leave anyone behind. But no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse last Thursday.
Experts say the decision to shift to a recovery mission is complicated and involves hundreds of factors. Among them: weighing the safety of the rescuers against the possibility of finding survivors.
Thomas Miller, West Virginia director of the National Volunteer Fire Council called it "the toughest decision you’ll ever make in the world."
How long to search for survivors?:An agonizing decision is looming for condo rescue teams
Remembering those who died
Of the 24 people confirmed dead, authorities released these names: Stacie Fang, 54; Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, his wife Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their daughters Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4; Frank Kleiman, 55; Michael Davis Altman, 50; Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Christina Beatriz Elvira de Oliwkowicz, 74; Luis Bermudez, 26, and his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46; Antonio Lozano, 83, and his wife Gladys Lozano, 79; Manuel LaFont, 54; Hilda Noriega, 92; Bonnie Epstein, 56; Claudio Bonnefoy, 85; and Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69.
Contributing: The Associated Press