4 dead and up to 159 missing in Florida condo collapse

Four dead and up to 159 missing in Florida building collapse

It remained unclear precisely how many others had been inside the building at the time of the collapse

A police car is parked in front of debris from a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach. Credit: AFP Photo

As many as 159 people remained unaccounted for Friday afternoon, dozens more than officials had estimated a day earlier, as rescuers used trained dogs and sonar in a frantic search through the rubble of the Champlain Towers condo complex in South Florida.

The known death toll had risen overnight to four, officials said, and it remained unclear precisely how many others had been inside the building at the time of the collapse. There were no changes to the number of people reported missing and dead between an early-morning news briefing and one in the early afternoon.

“Speaking with a lot of these family members, when they’re unaccounted for, it’s a really, really difficult thing because they just don’t know,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said Friday morning that officials “still have hope” to find survivors in the tangled concrete, where rescue crews used saws and jackhammers to tunnel through 13 collapsed floors that were stacked like pancakes. Footage streamed by local news stations showed rescuers placing pieces of debris in buckets by hand as they searched one area of the property.

“My mind tells me there is no way she could have survived such a massive collapse, but I believe in a God that can do anything,” said Sally Noriega, whose 91-year-old mother-in-law, Hilda Noriega, lived in the building and has not been heard from.

Rescuers focused their efforts on sounds that came from the pile, but officials cautioned that those sounds may only be from steel twisting or debris raining down.

“It feels like a nightmare; none of this feels real,” said Zoila Benezra, a resident of a nearby condo building who was volunteering at a community center where dozens of family members of the missing had gathered Friday. “Everyone’s just been waiting.”

In an interview on “Good Morning America,” Levine Cava said the rising death toll was “devastating news for families waiting for any hope of survival.”

An official with the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department said Friday that Stacie Fang, 54, died in the collapse. Fang was rescued from the rubble but pronounced dead at a hospital. She is the first victim to be identified by the medical examiner.

The stunning collapse of the residential building, in the beachfront town of Surfside, left few answers and considerable questions about how a 40-year-old condo building could have suddenly crumbled as residents rested in their beds.

The structure, with more than 130 units, was home to a mix of retirees and well-off professionals with young families. The wrecked interiors of what were once people’s homes gaped open toward the ocean — broken air-conditioning units. An empty bunk bed. Linens waving in the wind.

“The collapse stopped right at our apartment,” said Marian Smeraldi-Lopez, who said she escaped on the partly collapsed building’s stairway. “No apartments on that north side were visible. Just air, debris and rubble.”

A lawyer for the resident-led association that manages Champlain Towers said the building had been about to undergo extensive repairs for rusted steel and damaged concrete.

As the search for survivors continued, fire department officials warned that the process would be slow and methodical. Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant chief, said crews were using heavy machinery to lift debris from the top of the pile, as well as tunneling through the rubble to look for survivors.

Michael Hernandez, a lifeguard in Surfside, said he spent most of the day Thursday helping comb through the debris and had been back helping since 3 a.m. Friday.

“I got home and made breakfast and slept for maybe five hours,” Hernandez said.

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