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Search efforts for 117 missing residents resume after Miami condo building is demolished

Search efforts were put on pause Saturday after engineers evaluating the remaining structure deemed it too unstable for crews to work the debris pile.

Search and rescue efforts for 117 unaccounted-for residents continued Monday after the unstable remainder of the Miami-area condo tower that collapsed was brought down.

The section of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, that remained upright after the partial collapse of the building June 24 was demolished at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. The destruction has allowed search and rescue teams to explore more of the debris without concerns that the unstable building would collapse on the crews, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on NBC News' "TODAY" show.

"We owe it to all of those waiting to get this pile and open it up for search, and that's exactly what happened last night before midnight," Levine Cava said. "They were out there again, searching in the rubble. And we understand that families realize the fact that time has gone by, they realize that the chances are going dimmer and dimmer."

Four more bodies were found as teams continued their search, raising the death toll to 28 by Monday evening.

Search efforts were put on pause Saturday after engineers evaluating the remaining structure deemed it too unstable for crews to work the debris pile. City and state officials accelerated authorization for the demolition after Levine Cava said the building posed a threat to public safety.

Some families resisted the timeline, however, and asked a judge to halt the demolition so they could go back to save their pets, NBC Miami reported. A woman told the judge during an emergency hearing Sunday that she was aware of the risk but was willing to go back in herself to save her cat.

The motion was denied.

The city used a method called energetic felling, which uses a series of small detonations and relies on gravity to bring a structure down on its own footprint. Levine Cava said Monday that the technique worked as planned, without damaging or disturbing any other area of the site.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Monday that he was hopeful that "we're going to be seeing some miracle." Search and rescue teams were able to go back to work the pile within 20 minutes of the demolition, with heavy equipment now permitted to enter the site.

"That's a significant change, because now our men and women who are out there on the pile can utilize that equipment. ... Operations are now moving much faster than they ever have," Burkett said.

Officials said they hoped Tropical Storm Elsa would not cause significant search delays — the storm is on a path to affect the western part of the state — but rescuers faced some setbacks because of weather. Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said he feared flying debris picked up by high winds could injure the workers.

"The bad weather unfortunately has caused some temporary pauses in the work," Levine Cava said at an evening news conference, citing the effects of the outer bands of Elsa. "The first responders are the most frustrated by any delays we’ve experienced."

Burkett said efforts will continue indefinitely24/7 until every unaccounted-for person is found, except during bad weather. “The site is busier and more active now than I’ve seen it since we began,” he said.

Families of the victims and survivors are temporarily being housed in hotels until more permanent accommodations could be found. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency that allowed families to be registered for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and brought in other assistance to the state. A charitable fund was created to help families in the interim before they receive federal aid and insurance money.

Personal items found among the rubble are also being catalogued to return to families. DeSantis said at a news conference Monday that he understood families' desire to return to the remaining structure for their belongings but that it was just not feasible considering the risk that the building might collapse again.

"I would have loved for them to go in and get their belongings, but every single person said it's too dangerous, that you could potentially have people die if that were to happen," DeSantis said. "So obviously, it wasn't worth that risk. We cannot lose any more people."

DeSantis said he is working with local officials to expedite assistance for families, including mental health care.

"This is something that is going to be require long-term support, but I can tell you the support is there," DeSantis said. "Getting through some of the bureaucracy to channel that sometimes in situations like this, unfortunately, can be something that we have to do, but the support is there."

The collapse, the cause of which remains under investigation, has brought higher scrutiny of buildings in South Florida. Miami-area officials have begun a review of the structural integrity of all city condo high-rises above five stories.

As part of the audit, a North Miami condominium complex was evacuated Friday.

An engineer said in a Jan. 11 recertification report that the 156-unit complex, the Crestview Towers Condominium, which was built in 1972, "was structurally and electrically unsafe," the city of North Miami Beach said a statement Friday. The zoning department "ordered the immediate closure and evacuation of Crestview Towers Condominium."

Champlain Towers North, about a block away, underwent an expedited inspection. Burkett said nothing was found that indicates that the tower is in danger. He said a deep-dive inspection of the north tower will be conducted Tuesday by an engineering firm hired by the residents.

While some residents chose to leave, many have stayed put, saying their building — which is almost identical to the collapsed Champlain Towers South — is better maintained.

IMAGE: Rescuers search for victims at a collapsed condo building in Surfside, Fla.
Rescuers search for victims at a collapsed condo building Monday in Surfside, Fla., after demolition crews set off a string of explosives that brought down the last of the Champlain Towers South building.Carl Juste / AP

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 12-story 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."

The pool was swallowed into a massive sinkhole shortly before the collapse, Cassondra "Cassie" Billedeau-Stratton, who remains missing, told her husband on the phone before her line went dead.

At least three lawsuits have been filed after the disaster, one of them Monday by Raysa Rodriguez, who was rescued from a balcony. She recounted in a complaint that seeks class-action status that the building "swayed like a sheet of paper."

A spokesperson for the resident-led Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc. said that it "cannot comment on pending litigation" and that "our focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time."