SURFSIDE, Florida — A cloud of white dust rose over the demolished remains of the partially collapsed South Florida condo building that left 24 dead and 121 missing.
A series of rapid-fire explosions – not unlike the sound of nearby July 4th fireworks celebrations – could be heard coming from the tower just moments before it teetered and crumbled to the ground in a matter of a few seconds.
The decision to move up the demolition of the rest of the Champlain Towers South came Saturday as officials in charge of the search and rescue in the rubble feared the structure could collapse as Tropical Storm Elsa – expected to make landfall Tuesday – brings strong winds to south Florida.
It also paves the way for possible recovery – even rescue – efforts. Crews were to begin clearing some of the new debris so rescuers could start making their way into parts of the underground garage that is of particular interest. Once there, rescuers are hoping that they will gain access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah has said. That could give a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.
Demolition crews drilling holes for the explosives had completed their work as of Sunday evening, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a Sunday evening news conference.
She announced a shelter in place zone for surrounding residents from 7 p.m. Sunday until “two hours following the demolition.” No building evacuations have been recommended, she added.
It will be safe to resume search and rescue activities shortly after the blast, no matter what time of night, she said.
Surfside condo existing structure prepped for demolition
The demolition of the rest of the partially collapsed Florida condo building is scheduled to come down as rescuers suspended their search.
Staff video, USA TODAY
The demolition was conducted using a technique called “energetic felling,” which consists of “small strategically placed detonations and relies on force of gravity to bring the building down,” Levine Cava said.
Residents in the area immediately around the condo building were warned to stay inside during the demolition and close openings to their homes because of the potential for dust. A cover has also been laid atop the debris field that is closest to the damaged building, she said.
In implosions – using explosives to have a building fall in on itself – the charges are generally set off in rapid succession over a matter of seconds, said Scott Homrich, who heads the National Demolition Association and runs his own demolition company in Detroit, Michigan. Setting the explosives off at intervals serves to break up the building at the same time it’s coming down.
Officials acknowledged that the tragedy is continuing to unfold during the July 4th holiday.
“This July 4 we’re reminded that patriotism isn’t just about loyalty to country,” said Levine Cava. “It’s about loyalty to one another – to our communities, to those in need whose names or stories we may not know ever, but to whom we are connected by compassion and by resilience.”
Levine Cava said Saturday that the National Science Foundation was on scene using lidar – a laser-based system that can scan environments and buildings to create a digital map – and drones to create a 3D-model of the structure to assist engineers in demolition preparation.
Controlled Demolition Inc. has been contracted to perform the demolition, Levine Cava said.
The Maryland-based company is more than 70 years old, according to its website. The company has been involved in several high-profile demolitions, including the Plaza Tower in Atlantic City, New Jersey; the One James River Plaza in Richmond, Virginia; the Seattle Kingdome stadium; the remains of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City; and the remains of the World Trade Center in New York.
On Sunday, Levine Cava noted the significance of the work on the site continuing on the Fourth of July holiday. “This is not an Independence Day like any we have ever experienced before,” she said.
Meanwhile, a third Miami-area condo building was evacuated late Saturday after an inspector found issues with flooring in a vacant unit and exterior wall damage to the low-rise unit, the Miami Herald reported. Another building had been evacuated Friday evening over structural concerns.
Official: Tropical Storm Elsa arrival a ‘blessing in disguise’ for demolition
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett labeled Tropical Storm Elsa’s trek toward the Florida peninsula “a blessing in disguise” because it accelerated the demolition plan, which was initially forecast to take weeks.
“It’s eliminated a looming threat, a dangerous threat for our rescue workers,” he said Sunday evening.
Burkett said the building demolition will potentially open up about one-third of the rubble pile to new access by search-and-rescue teams who are looking for survivors. He added that emergency officials can control the direction the structure falls to the ground, rather than Elsa’s gusts.
“I’m starting to see this approaching storm as a lucky situation, because it forced us into a conversation which has accomplished a lot of good things,” Burkett said.
Elsa is forecast to approach the west coast of Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. Although Surfside is on Florida’s east coast, the area “could see some gusts,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday. Local impacts from the storm could begin as soon as Monday afternoon, he said. “We’re prepared to deal with impacts.”
Levine Cava said the impacts of Elsa could slow rescue efforts in the coming days depending on conditions in Surfside.
Surfside official pushes back on claim town delayed repairs
A Surfside official on Sunday issued a statement pushing back against the idea the town had slowed the condo’s plans to make needed structural repairs.
Town manager Andrew Hyatt said the repairs discussed in emails first reported by the Miami Herald, which detailed Surfside’s more than a month delay in responding to the condo association, were preliminary plans unrelated to structural work and not permits to begin repairs the building needed to pass a 40-year recertification.
The Herald reported a condo building manager grew impatient in emails to the town around temporary parking as the building sought to repair a concrete slab under the pool and damaged columns in the condo’s garage.
“It would appear that the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association sought to address a number of issues outside the scope of any proposed 40-year recertification work,” such as new natural gas lines and added parking, Hyatt’s statement said. “There was no indication during any communications between the Town and the association by telephone or electronic mail that this submission required emergency action by the Town of Surfside.”
In a June 21 email, more than a month after the first request to the town, building manager Scott Stewart wrote, “As we are out to bid on our project (we) need to get to answers to these questions. … This is holding us up and cost (sic) are going up and out (sic) 40 year is coming up fast.”
The town responded with requests for additional information on June 23, hours before the building’s partial collapse.
Even without the town delay, it is not certain whether it would have made a difference. Approving bids and permits for such work may have taken longer than a month. And while the structural problems that were to be repaired have gotten intense scrutiny, it has not been determined definitively that they caused the collapse.
Two more bodies pulled from rubble
Miami-Dade Police said Saturday evening that two additional people were found dead in the collapsed section of the building, bringing the official death toll to 24. The June 24 building collapse has left 121 people still unaccounted for.
Police said Graciela Cattarossi, 48, and Gonzalo Torre, 81, were recovered Friday.
Contributing: The Associated Press