President Biden held a long, emotional meeting Thursday with families of some of the scores of victims still missing after last week’s collapse of a Florida seaside condominium, telling reporters afterward that those keeping vigil are “very realistic” that their loved ones probably have died.
“They’re praying and pleading that ‘Let there be a miracle,’” Biden said after the private session in a Miami-area hotel with about 200 people.
Yet having been to the wreckage, a mountain of concrete and debris, the family members asked “basic heart-wrenching questions,” he added, such as whether they would ever reclaim their loved ones’ bodies.
“They’re going through hell,” the president said. “I thought it was important to speak to every single person who wanted to speak to me.”
Biden — whose capacity for empathy, born of his own experience with tragedies, has been a defining trait — described talking with a woman who’d lost her husband and baby, and an individual who was missing most of their family. The official death toll stood at 18 and is certain to rise with 145 people still unaccounted for.
Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett, speaking at officials’ nightly news conference, said he told Biden about a 12-year-old girl who had prayed next to the ruins for her missing father and who wanted to meet with Biden.
“Bring her to me,” the president said, by Burkett’s recounting, and he “embraced her, gave her words of comfort and was grandfatherly to her, and it actually made her day.”
Burkett confirmed that Biden went to each table of victims’ relatives, talking to every one.
Earlier, the president was briefed by local officials and met with about 50 members of the search-and-rescue teams who’d been picking through the rubble of the Surfside condo around the clock — until operations were halted hours before his arrival in Miami because of signs of dangerous instability in remaining structures.
Fourteen hours later, about the time Biden was leaving that evening, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue office tweeted that the operations had resumed, adding, “Finding missing loved ones continues to be at the forefront of our operations.”
Biden told the first responders, who met him and First Lady Jill Biden at the hotel: “Until we need you, no one fully appreciates what you do. But I promise you, we know. We know. What you’re doing here is incredible, having to deal with the uncertainty and worrying about the families.”
Surfside Police Capt. John Healy said Biden shook hands and spoke with each of his officers and thanked them. “His heartfelt comments were well taken,” Healy said.
The president was not expected to visit the condo wreckage given the dangers, but his motorcade stopped at a nearby makeshift memorial to the victims on its way back to the airport. The Bidens walked slowly as they looked at a wall of photos and the first lady left a bouquet of white irises at a curb alongside some candles.
Among the emergency responders who met Biden was Surfside Police Officer Craig Lovellette, who was among the first several officers on the scene at Champlain Towers South on June 24, just before 1:30 a.m. after a fire alarm. He described what they found in an interview with The Times and other reporters.
“All we could see was what we thought was smoke in the air, but there was no smell of smoke. It was debris,” he said. In the dark, he added, “We went to the screams of the people, and we were trying to figure out where we can go to help them.”
“We had to keep wiping our eyes,” Lovellette said. “Flashlights were not even cutting through this debris.”
He could tell the parking garage had collapsed, but he could not see anyone on the balconies. As two other officers ran to the front of the building to look for survivors, he began to search the rubble: “There was nobody there. There was nobody. And at that moment, it was just a complete shock.”
Fire and rescue crews arrived and tried to save people from the remaining portions of the building complex with a cherry picker. Lovellette, shining his flashlight up to the towers, could see children waving. He shone the light on himself and waved to the kids to let them know help was on its way.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is considered among his party’s potential presidential aspirants for 2024, was among the public officials with whom Biden met. Amid the tragedy, politics were set aside.
DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava each had praise for federal assistance that had been provided as they conversed with the president and other state and local officials around a hotel table.
“You recognized the severity of this tragedy from Day One, and you’ve been very supportive,” DeSantis told Biden.
The president said the federal government “could do more” and suggested he had “the power to pick up 100% of the cost” of the response effort. He later confirmed that the federal government would cover search-and-rescue costs for the first 30 days.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said in reference to the federal response, adding, “Tell me what you need.”
Luck and prayers, DeSantis replied.
Beyond the immediate grief and interminable waiting is the longer-term question about the safety of the other high-rises that dot the Florida coast, a geographic area that is among the nation’s most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including severe storms and rising sea levels.
Earlier Thursday, local officials explained their reasons for stopping the search-and-rescue operation at the Champlain Towers South condominium building, citing the potential instability of the remaining western portion of the tower.
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan R. Cominsky said officials temporarily called off searches at 2:11 a.m. after structural engineers detected 6 to 12 inches of movement in a large column hanging from the structure; if it fell, they feared, it could damage support columns in the subterranean garage. They also found slight movement in a concrete floor slab on the south side of the structure that could pose an additional danger.
Tropical storms and fires have exacerbated the structural instability of the site and the pile of wreckage that has buried scores of people. Florida officials are bracing for the possible arrival of tropical storm Elsa early next week.
Stokols reported from Bal Harbour and Jarvie from Surfside.