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Excavators dig through the remains from the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on July 09, 2021 in Surfside, Fla.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The death toll in the collapse of a Miami-area condo building rose to 79 on Friday, a number the mayor called “heartbreaking,” as recovery workers toiled for a 16th day to find victims in the rubble. Another 61 people remain unaccounted for.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the work to recover victims was “moving forward with great urgency” in order to bring closure to the families of victims who have spent an agonizing two weeks waiting for news.

“This is a staggering and heartbreaking number that affects all of us very deeply,” Ms. Levine Cava said of the latest death toll.

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“All those who have passed … are leaving behind loved ones. They’re leaving behind devastated families. The magnitude of this tragedy is growing each and every day,” she said.

Rescue workers and emergency support teams from Florida and several other states have laboured in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day at the site of the devastated beachfront condominium in Surfside – physically and emotionally taxing work performed amid oppressive heat and in dangerous conditions.

“We know that there will be long-term impacts for the teams on the front line,” Ms. Levine Cava said. “They have given so much of themselves in these first two weeks.”

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said taking care of the mental health and well-being of the first responders is a priority. He said it is critical that the first responders communicate with each other. “It’s important for us to talk,” he said.

To that end, Ms. Levine Cava said officials have added peer support personnel at the fire stations.

No one has been found alive since the first hours after a large section of the 12-storey Champlain Towers South came crashing down on June 24.

Hope of finding survivors was briefly rekindled after workers demolished the remainder of the building Sunday night, allowing access to new areas of debris. Some voids where survivors could have been trapped did exist, mostly in the basement and the parking garage, but no one was found alive. Instead, teams recovered more than a dozen additional victims.

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On Wednesday, workers shifted their mission from search and rescue to recovery after concluding that there was “no chance of life” in the rubble.

Ms. Levine Cava said the deaths of so many is “an aching hole in the centre of this close-knit family here in Surfside.”

State and local officials have pledged financial assistance to families of the victims, as well as to residents of the building who survived but lost all their possessions. Meanwhile, authorities are launching a grand jury investigation into the collapse. And at least six lawsuits have been filed by families.

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