Death came swiftly to residents of Champlain Towers South. Grandparents, parents and children were sleeping in their beds when their 12-storey condominium building collapsed into a heap of smouldering rubble.
Survivors described a sound like thunder, followed by complete destruction of dozens of apartments in the oceanside south Florida block. The collapse took barely 10 seconds but was captured on grim security camera footage from a neighboring building that quickly began streaming on news websites across the world.
Still images of the aftermath of what the Miami-Dade mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, has called “an unimaginable tragedy” were equally heartbreaking. White bunkbeds precariously askew in what was once a child’s bedroom; crumpled air conditioning units, crushed furniture and other personal belongings in a 30ft heap of debris more reminiscent of a war zone.
But the true human extent of the horror that descended on the tiny community of Surfside, just north of Miami Beach, in the early hours of Thursday was not immediately apparent. By Saturday morning a painstaking, days-long search and rescue effort had delivered no evidence of survivors, and hope was fading for families huddled at a nearby reunification center in a desperate wait for news. Four people were confirmed dead, with 159 missing.
“Every time I close my eyes, all I can see is the video of the tower’s fall,” said Pablo Rodriguez, whose 64-year-old mother, Elena Blasser, and 88-year-old grandmother, Elena Chavez, were in the condo building.
“It’s devastating. You know, it comes in waves. It’s completely devastating,” Rodriguez added in an interview with CNN, one of many he has conducted.
The 40-year-old Miami man was close to tears as he spoke to NBC.
“Everyone is praying for a miracle but with every passing hour, it gets less,” he said, recalling how his mother had been looking forward to a day out with ice cream with her six-year-old grandson, John Paul, on Friday, and buying him a new bike.
The faces of dozens of others believed to have been in the tower began to appear on an impromptu memorial wall on the fence of a tennis court on Harding Avenue, a short distance from the wreckage.
Amid summer thunderstorms, visitors stopped to leave flowers or light candles, pin up posters of the missing, or stand in quiet prayer. The scene mirrored that following the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001 and numerous tragedies since, including a shooting that killed 49 at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
The missing ranged in age from infants to elderly people and came from a range of nationalities. They included the sister-in-law and other family members of Paraguay’s president, Mario Abdo Benitez; and one Briton, 38-year-old Bhavna Patel, unaccounted for with her husband, Vishal, and their one-year-old daughter, Aishani.
“There are loved ones and family members praying for news but they’re not getting timely updates, and I don’t really have the answers,” said Charles Kesl, a Surfside town commissioner. “They’re crying and hugging me because I’ve taken a moment to treat them right. I can just listen and take their concerns seriously. It’s not about the logistics, it’s about the people and the building.”
For the rescue crews digging into the unstable rubble and using search dogs, sonar and video technology, jackhammers and specialized heavy lifting equipment, the work is hard, dangerous, and physically and emotionally draining. Small teams work in 15-minute shifts, 24 hours a day, sifting rubble into buckets.
They have been hampered by storms and by fires that have broken out in the mound. On Friday there was a larger blaze in the standing section of the 130-apartment tower.
The dense, gray-black smoke is choking, the stench of chemicals hangs in the air, and crews are wading through knee-deep water in the subterranean parking garage to reach the rescue zone. But nobody wants to leave.
“This work is being done at extreme risk to these individuals, debris is falling on them as they do their work,” said Levine Cava, the mayor who has been a constant presence at the disaster site. “We have structural engineers on site to ensure that they will not be injured, but they are proceeding because they are so motivated. They have to be pulled off the shift.”
Raide Jadallah, the assistant chief of the Miami-Dade fire rescue department, said his crews would work until all hope of finding life was exhausted. Some from a unit known as Florida taskforce 1 were deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and pulled survivors from the rubble days after the disaster.
“We are listening for sounds, not specifically human sounds, it could be tapping, it could be steel kind of twisting, it could be some of the debris kind of raining down,” Jadallah said.
Alongside first responders, a succession of politicians appeared at daily press conferences, to thank rescue workers, offer condolences or press for answers. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, called for a prompt investigation.
“We need a definitive explanation for how this could have happened,” he said on Friday. “That’s an explanation that needs to be an accurate explanation, it’s an explanation that we don’t want to get wrong. It’s important that it’s timely because you have a lot of families here that lost loved ones.”
Clues began to emerge on Saturday. A New York Times article revealed that an engineering consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the condo in 2018, but repair work had not taken place.
“There were cracks in the concrete that people reported, there might have been movement in the soil below the building where the garage is, they drive in and see cracks in the garage or water penetration,” said Kobi Karp, a respected Miami-based architect.
“That would lead people to say, you know, ‘We need to repair this now.’ If you don’t repair it, then obviously, that can continue to degrade. But the question is why has this rather youthful building of 40 years old just been demolished?
“Maybe this is a day of enlightenment, post this horrendous event. I think you are looking at a complete relook at what this structure is and the way structures were built in the 1980s. Maybe the building was badly maintained and there were cracks and yet you know what? It still shouldn’t have collapsed.”
As dawn broke over Surfside on Saturday, the third full day of rescue efforts, authorities renewed their resolve.
“We must remain focused in our efforts to save lives,” the Miami-Dade police director, Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez said in a tweet. “I ask you to join me in prayer. We have not lost hope! #surfsidestrong.”