A week after the partial collapse of a Miami-area condo building, the rescue effort was suspended for more than 15 hours over fears that the rest of the complex could also fall down. A gathering tropical storm, meanwhile, is threatening to further hamper recovery crews.
The decision to stop work around 2 a.m. Thursday came hours before U.S. President Joe Biden visited Surfside to comfort families and meet with first responders.
It delayed an already slow and painstaking effort to find 145 people, including four Canadians, still missing in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South. Eighteen have so far been confirmed dead; no survivors have been found since the early hours of the rescue.
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said concrete floor slabs under the still-standing portion of the building have moved, which could cause it to collapse. A large column hanging off the building might also fall and damage other support columns.
“They’re working in a very, very unsafe environment,” he said of the hundreds of rescuers picking through the debris pile. “My primary focus is to see how we can get back out there.”
Engineers spent the day figuring out how to safely proceed. Shortly after 6 p.m., work resumed.
Tropical Storm Elsa could cause further delays. The storm, which is moving toward the Caribbean and could be upgraded to a hurricane, is tracking to hit Florida early next week. If that happens, it could shut down work at Champlain South for days. Thunderstorms earlier this week already caused shorter work stoppages at the site.
Mr. Biden and first lady Jill Biden spent roughly three hours meeting with the families of the missing. He said afterward that they are largely resigned to the likelihood no more survivors will be found.
“They’re all realists. They see those floors – cement upon cement upon cement. They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished,” he said. “But at a minimum, they want to be able to recover the body.”
The Bidens stopped at a memorial wall two blocks from the site, where Ms. Biden laid a bouquet of white irises and Mr. Biden bowed his head and crossed himself.
At a nearby police barrier, Les Garcia was among a group of neighbours that put up signs saying “Let Mexican topos help” in the stifling heat Thursday afternoon. The topos, Mexican rescuers trained to tunnel through building rubble, are on-site in Surfside but haven’t been allowed to start digging.
Still, the pause for safety reasons was understandable, said Ms. Garcia, a 45-year-old technology consultant.
“It’s going to be frustrating,” she said. " But they know what they’re doing, and they are taking all the security measures to protect the first responders.”
Ms. Garcia’s mother is friends with Julio and Angela Velasquez who lived on the building’s third floor. The Velasquezes, along with their daughter Theresa visiting from California, have not been found.
Leo Soto, whose high-school friend Nicole Langesfeld and her husband, Luis Sandovnic, are among the missing, said he still believed more survivors would be found, despite the mounting obstacles.
“I’ve felt from complete devastation to hope and faith,” he said. “It’s weird to describe how I feel right now, because I feel more hope than I did when this first happened.”
Mr. Soto, a 26-year-old university hospitality student, said he couldn’t sleep last Thursday night, thinking of the people missing in the building. So he got up at 4 a.m. Friday and created the memorial wall. Mr. Soto printed off photos of the missing and dead and attached them to a chain-link fence. They were soon joined by well-wishers’ flowers and devotional candles.
Rescue workers leaving the rubble have deposited children’s stuffies found in the wreckage, including a battered Linus doll and a soot-stained green dinosaur. Two of the most recent dead identified, sisters Lucia and Emma Guara, were 10- and four-years-old.
For Surfside resident Wendy Marra, 38, the children caught in the disaster hit home, particularly after watching the dramatic rescue of 15-year-old Jonah Handler, one of the few survivors to make it out alive. She brought a condolence card created by her seven-year-old son to the memorial Thursday. Made from construction paper, it depicted a sun and ocean scene.
“When I showed my son the video of the boy being pulled out of the rubble, it was too much,” she said. “Because it could have been another little boy.”
Manny Moreno, a 39-year-old Iraq War veteran who brought his chihuahua, Brownie, to the site, said suspending the search was unfortunately necessary.
“We don’t want more tragedy,” he said, “more deaths.”
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