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With 4 confirmed dead, 159 unaccounted for, officials vow to keep searching Florida condo rubble

"We are working around the clock, and we have hope," Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said after a second day of searching following the collapse.
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Searchers for a second day combed through the massive pile of debris following the collapse of a Florida condo building, as officials vowed to keep looking for anyone who may still be alive.

"We are still working. We are working around the clock, and we have hope," Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday night. In other disasters, people have been found alive in rubble after a week or more, she said.

Four people have been found dead, and 159 people who may have been in the 12-story building remained unaccounted for, officials said.

Cranes and other heavy equipment were moving to the site of the disaster in Surfside, a town near Miami Beach. Search teams were looking from below, tunneling through a parking garage, and from above. They were using dogs, sonar and cameras. Personnel from Mexico and Israel have arrived to help.

The latest developments:

  • At least 159 people were unaccounted for, 11 others were injured, and four people were killed after a building partially collapsed near Miami Beach.
  • The cause of the collapse was unclear, but scientists have long noted the risk of building on shifting sands of a barrier island like Miami Beach.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology is doing an initial assessment at the site, which could prompt an investigation to inform future building codes— the same work that was done after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center's towers Sept. 11, 2001.
  • A resident filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit against the building's condominium association, alleging that the organization did not adequately protect its residents or repair structural issues.
  • President Joe Biden approved federal aid to help support state and local rescue efforts.

Stacie Fang, 54, was killed in the collapse, her family said.

"There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie," the family said in a statement to NBC Miami. She was the mother of a 15-year-old boy seen being pulled from the rubble and rescued after the collapse.

The search for survivors is a "very strategic, methodical process," Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said. Debris must be carefully moved and areas shored up. There is a fire burning within that crews have not been able to reach or fully extinguish.

"With this search, with this type of collapse, it's extremely difficult," he said. "What we’re looking for is areas of voids, possible patient survivability, and that's where we're focusing."

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Andy Alvarez told NBC's "TODAY" show Friday that the massive rescue effort has been a "nonstop, 24-hour operation," adding that busted water pipes, downed electric lines and crumbled cars were among some of the challenges facing emergency personnel.

"What you see obviously through helicopters and what you see on the street is one thing," he said. "We have a completely different view of what we're actually doing from underneath, trying to get to those places where there's a chance of survival and finding people that are still alive."

Authorities, however, had no insight Friday on what caused 55 of the 136 units in the Champlain Towers South's northeast corridor to collapse about 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Scientists have long noted the risk of building on the shifting sands of a barrier island like Miami Beach, especially with rising sea levels. While it may not be the reason for the collapse, scientists said the conditions continue to present an engineering challenge in the region.

"We'll have to figure out why did this happen, and that answer isn't necessarily apparent right now, but it will be identified," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. "Anyone who was affected by this directly wants that answer but also we need to know is this a bigger issue or is this something unique to the building?"

DeSantis issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency after visiting the site Thursday.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is sending a team of six to the site of the collapse, according to Jennifer Huergo, a spokesperson for the federal agency.

After the team does its initial assessment, it will decide whether to do a complete investigation that would likely inform future building codes — the kind of work that was done after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers Sept. 11, 2001, she said.

Less than a day after a portion of the Surfside high-rise was reduced to rubble, a resident filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc. The defendant alleged that the organization did not adequately protect its residents or repair structural issues, which led to "one of the most breathtakingly frightening tragedies in the history of South Florida," according to the lawsuit.

Donna Berger, an attorney for Becker, a law firm that has worked for the building since 1993, said that it was "disappointing" to direct the focus away from rescue efforts when more than 100 people were still unaccounted for.

“I feel as a culture, we’ve become so accustomed from moving from one tragic event to another, and there’s often a rush to judgment," she said. "Certainly, if there’s culpable parties, they should be held accountable, but first and foremost our focus is on the search and rescue efforts.”

“How in the span of less than a day could an attorney file a lawsuit alleging anything? Every expert on the site doesn’t know what happened, yet some attorney has decided that he has figured this all out,” Berger said.

More than 20 Jewish people were believed to be among the missing, Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told NBC News on Friday.

"We don't yet know if they hold Israeli citizenship," he added. "We're looking into it." Israel's consul general in Miami was working with the Jewish and wider South Floridan community to provide support, he said.

Colombia's Foreign Ministry also tweeted that at least six nationals were known to reside in the building at the time of its collapse. The foreign ministry said it would work with local officials and provide updates and support.

At least 22 South American nationals were missing since the building gave way — nine from Argentina, six from Paraguay, four from Venezuela and three from Uruguay, according to officials in those countries, The Associated Press reported.

Relatives of the first lady of Paraguay were among the dozens unaccounted for in the collapse. In interviews Thursday, Euclides Acevedo, Paraguay’s foreign minister, identified the missing family members as Sophia López Moreira, the sister of first lady Silvana López Moreira, and her husband, Luis Pettengill — both members of President Mario Abdo Benítez’s family. Their three children and Lady Luna Villalba, a worker accompanying the family, were also missing, Acevedo said.

Image: Dozens Presumed Missing After Residential Building In Miami Area Partially Collapses
Maria Fernanda Martinez, Fayzah Bushnaq, and Mariana Cordeiro comfort each other near at the site of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said search and rescue operations could "play out for days."

"I mean, could be weeks until we really know who is under the rubble, who survived, who didn't survive," Salzhauer said. "There's a lot of people unaccounted for, lot of families very concerned."

Drone video showed an aerial video of the high-rise, a once L-shaped building that lost its entire northeast-facing corridor, which made up nearly half the building.

President Joe Biden approved federal aid for Florida to help support state and local rescue efforts after speaking with Levine Cava on Thursday.

Records showed the condo complex was built in 1981. The building is across from a beach in the oceanfront community of about 6,000 people.

Salzhauer said the building was undergoing inspection for its 40-year recertification, which takes about a year. A nearby "sister-building," Champlain Towers North, was built around the same time, according to the commissioner.