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98th and final missing person recovered, identified in Florida partial building collapse

The dangerous, nearly nonstop multi-agency search led to an incremental rise in a death toll that officials would first share with victims' families and then with the press twice a day for almost three weeks.
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The identification of a 98th victim in the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, brought the painstaking process of searching for missing people to a close.

At a news conference Monday, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that the final missing person's family had been notified following the identification of the individual's remains, formally ending the search.

The remains belonged to Estelle Hedaya, 54, according to a statement from the Miami-Dade Police.

Hedaya was the only victim left unrecovered when firefighters concluded their search for bodies Friday as, nearly a month after the collapse, the stories-high debris pile was cleared so that the building's entire foundation was exposed.

Officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department were left to continue the work looking for remains and personal items.

Levine Cava said Miami-Dade police would continue sorting through the evidentiary pile to "be sure that all identifiable human remains are recovered," adding that search and rescue officials did everything possible to bring closure to the families.

“Nothing we can say or do can bring back these 98 angels," Levine Cava said, "who left behind grieving families, beloved friends, and loved ones across this community and across the world."

"I'm especially proud that through these efforts, we were able to bring closure to all those that reported missing loved ones."

Miami-Dade County officials said investigators eventually determined that 97 people were reported missing in the collapse. An additional victim who died in the hospital was never reported missing.

But the death toll could still rise, Natalia Jaramillo, Levine Cava's deputy communications director, told NBC News.

"There might be someone who was there that no one reported," she explained.

For nearly two weeks, the grueling search through a massive pile of debris was called a search and rescue effort, giving loved ones of the missing an ever-shrinking shred of hope that a survivor might be found.

But the last time a person was found with a pulse was hours after half the building flattened early June 24.

Officials hoped demolishing the other half of the building July 4 would allow crews to search more safely and efficiently for survivors.

But on the evening of July 7, officials said what families had known for days but dreaded hearing — the chance of finding anyone alive was "no longer possible."

At midnight, a little over an hour before those on the pile marked exactly two weeks since 12 floors became a mound in a matter of seconds, the search transitioned to a recovery effort.

The dangerous, nearly nonstop multi-agency search led to an incremental rise in a death toll that Levine Cava would first share with victims' families and then with the press twice a day for almost three weeks.

The oldest victim, Hilda Noriega, was 92 years old. The youngest victim, Aishani Gia Patel, was 1 year old, and among 10 children to lose their lives in the collapse.

As the death toll climbed, the number of unaccounted for people decreased until the remains of the 98th victim were identified and no more people were considered missing.

Officials had originally said that as many as 159 people were unaccounted for, but detectives worked for weeks to cross-check reports of missing people that may have been multiples or already accounted for.

While that number dropped by about a third, the final death toll is no less devastating.

Local and federal investigators are working to determine what caused 55 of the 136 units of the building to crumble.

Documents released by officials revealed previous concerns about the structural integrity of Champlain Towers South. The findings from an engineering consultant, Frank Morabito, showed that there was "abundant cracking" and crumbling in the underground parking garage of the building, according to a 2018 report.

Morabito recommended that concrete slabs, which were "showing distress" by the entrance and the pool deck, "be removed and replaced in their entirety." He said the concrete deterioration should "be repaired in a timely fashion."

Residents said they weren't told of the 2018 report. In fact, they said they were told at the time that the building was in good shape.

But a letter in April from Champlain Towers South Board President Jean Wodnicki to residents revealed the building's "concrete deterioration is accelerating," as Morabito predicted.

And a commercial contractor who was inspecting the pool the week before the collapse told the Miami Herald that there “was standing water all over the parking garage,” and the biggest puddle of water was by parking spot 78, located under the pool deck, where Morabito had reported there was "major structural damage."

Following the collapse, Levine Cava ordered an audit of buildings in the county that are five stories or higher and at or near 40 years old. She encouraged municipalities to do the same, offering the county's support.

At least five buildings in Florida have since been evacuated.

The recovery and identification of the last remains do not mark the end of sifting through the debris. Crews are still digging out evidence to be catalogued for the investigation and personal belongings — including religious items, firearms, photo albums and jewelry — to hopefully return to the victims' families.

Levine Cava and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett have both said the site would eventually house some sort of memorial. While officials don't yet know what that will look like, Burkett acknowledged that the ground below, where at least 98 people took their last breaths, is a "holy site."