Officials Race to Demolish the Rest of the Condo Before a Storm – The New York Times

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Remaining Portion of Surfside Condo to Be Demolished Within Days

Officials in Florida said they planned to quickly demolish the section of Champlain Towers South that was still standing to avoid complications from Tropical Storm Elsa, which could reach the state as early as Monday.

We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering, it is structurally unsound, and although the eye of this storm is not likely to pass over this direction, you could feel gusts in this area. We spoke with both County Mayor Cava and City Mayor Burkett’s teams, who made the decision to pursue the demolition for the building. I’m supportive of it. I think it’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in. I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that, but I don’t think there’s any way you could let somebody go up in that building. This will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over. And, of course, with these gusts, potentially, you know, that would create a really severe hazard. So our mission is to expedite it as soon as possible. Kevin Guthrie reports to me that once everything is ready to go, that it can be brought down within 36 hours. As we continue to search through the night, our teams recovered two additional victims. The number of confirmed victims now stands at 24. That’s 188 accounted for and 124 unaccounted for. The numbers are fluid and will continue to change, as we’ve told you repeatedly. As the governor mentioned, we’re doing everything we can to move forward with demolition. We did speak to the families this morning, both the survivors, who still have their belongings in that tower, and to the family members who are waiting for the search and rescue to continue. So they have all been informed and are aware.

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Officials in Florida said they planned to quickly demolish the section of Champlain Towers South that was still standing to avoid complications from Tropical Storm Elsa, which could reach the state as early as Monday.CreditCredit…Angel Valentin for The New York Times

Florida officials said on Saturday that they were rushing to demolish the part of Champlain Towers South that is still standing because of worries that the partially collapsed structure would not withstand the powerful winds of an approaching tropical storm.

“It’s structurally unsound,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said of the building during a morning news briefing.

Officials said preparations for the demolition could be completed within roughly 36 hours, allowing for the building to be brought down before Tropical Storm Elsa is expected to reach South Florida.

Demolition could begin as early as Sunday, according to Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside.

Mr. DeSantis acknowledged the added hardship the demolition would create for families who had fled the collapse, leaving behind most of their possessions. But he said the danger the building posed left no other option.

“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” the governor said. “I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there. We’re very sensitive to that. But I don’t think that there’s any way you could let someone go back up into that building given the shape that it’s in now.”

Mr. DeSantis said that while Surfside was not expected to bear the brunt of the storm, the city could still experience strong winds and heavy rain. Elsa was downgraded to a tropical storm from a Category 1 hurricane as it battered Caribbean islands. It could reach Florida as early as Monday, causing flooding and possible tornadoes.

Officials said a Maryland-based contractor, Controlled Demolition Inc., would use explosives to bring the remainder of the building down, and that the demolition would cause the “most minimal interruption” of search and rescue work at the site.That work halted temporarily at 4 p.m. Saturday because of preparations for demolition, officials announced.

Officials want to demolish the still-standing section of the building before the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa.
Credit…Miami Dade Fire Department

Search and rescue work has stopped temporarily at the partly collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., while workers prepare to demolish the part of the building that is still standing, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said Saturday evening.

“We are proceeding as quickly as we possibly can,” Ms. Levine Cava said at a news conference in Surfside.

The mayor said the search and rescue work at the site was not over, and that work would resume on portions of the site as soon as workers received clearance that those areas were safe again. She said 121 people were still unaccounted for in the disaster, three fewer than earlier tallies; 24 people are confirmed to have died.

She said engineers preparing the demolition requested the halt, which took effect at 4 p.m.

Mayor Levine Cava said officials still hoped to demolish the remainder of the damaged building before the arrival of strong winds and heavy rains from Tropical Storm Elsa, expected late on Monday or early Tuesday. Structural engineers are still working to determine the exact timing, she said.

“What is being looked at is something of tremendous consequence,” Ms. Levine Cava said. “It needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully.”

Because of the rush to get it done ahead of the storm, she said, federal investigators have been mobilized to gather and document as much evidence as they can about the current state of the building and the possible causes of the collapse before it is brought down.

The mayor said no additional evacuations were likely to be necessary for the demolition, though the adjacent buildings that have already been evacuated and the nearby vacant lots would be cleared of people.

Residents of Crestview Towers condominium stood outside the building on Friday as it was being evacuated. The city of North Miami Beach deemed the building unsafe after receiving an engineer’s report outlining structural and electrical problems.
Credit…Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA, via Shutterstock

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Miguel Jiménez was busy at work Friday, detailing a car, when a neighbor called. They had an hour to evacuate their apartments at Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach.

He immediately started thinking about the loud cracking sound he heard last week, and the time a pipe burst, flooding all the units in the building. The floors were still ruined, and the building’s concrete columns have seen sturdier days.

“Everything is damaged in this building, everything,” he said, standing beside the yellow crime-scene tape outside the building where Mr. Jiménez and his family have lived for six years.

Mayors in many cities and Miami-Dade County ordered audits of all buildings over 40 years old, which were supposed to be getting certifications at that age. Crestview’s certification was nine years overdue, and the building was cited by the city of North Miami Beach every year that it did not comply, a spokeswoman for the city said.

City records indicate that Crestview has been fined a total of nearly $600,000 by the city since 2014, though the records do not specify what the fines were for.

After the collapse in Surfside, seven miles away, the city nudged harder. North Miami Beach’s city manager ordered his own audit on Tuesday, and Crestview was sent another notice and fined.

Crestview’s building manager finally showed up at the city building department on Friday, with an 11-page engineering report that was dated in January. The report determined that the building was both structurally and electrically unsafe for continued occupancy.

The president of the condominium board referred questions to the board’s lawyer, Mariel Tollinchi.

Ms. Tollinchi said that the board disagreed with the need for the evacuation, and that the engineer’s report from January made the cracks and other problems seem worse than they were. She said the board had hired another engineer to provide more detail, and was gathering estimates for the necessary repair work.

The structural repairs were coming in at around $250,000, but the necessary electrical work was priced “in the millions,” she said, adding that unit owners were already paying up to $300 a month in assessments to finance the work. Residents should be back in the building within 30 days, Ms. Tollinchi said.

On its website, the management company posted a notice 11 days ago saying that it was working on improvements, including roofing, a new generator, and new lighting systems indoors and out. It said the city had demanded the lighting work for the 40-year certification, “which is something we could not postpone any longer.” The notice did not mention the cracked concrete and corroded rebar outlined in the engineer’s report.

Residents who evacuated on Friday were told that they could stay at a shelter on the county fairgrounds, a 40-minute drive away. “I would rather sleep in my car,” Mr. Jiménez said.

He wondered whether the unit owners, the city, the management company — anybody — would help relocate rental tenants like him who could not come up with at least $6,000 for security deposits and advance rent on another apartment.

Estefania Grajales, 25, and her husband, Holman J. Pérez, said they were napping Friday evening and heard about the evacuation order from a neighbor. Reporters were already outside, and people were rushing around with luggage. Ms. Grajales said it took an hour to get down from the eighth floor, because every time the elevator doors opened, the car was jammed with someone else’s prized possessions.

“Suitcases, bicycles, cabinets, children, everything,” Ms. Grajales said. “This did not happen one day to the next. It was one hour to the next.”

They stayed the night in an inn on Biscayne Blvd. “It was a mo-tel, not a ho-tel,” Mr. Pérez said.

Residents noted that many people in the building were fairly recent immigrants with no family nearby to stay with. Mr. Jimenez is from Venezuela, Ms. Grajales from Colombia, and Mr. Perez from Nicaragua.

Standing outside the building on Saturday hoping to get more information about what would happen with the building, Mr. Perez noted that he had less at stake than some residents did: “I’m a renter, thankfully.”

Elsa moving through the Caribbean on Tuesday, when it was still classified as a hurricane.
Credit…NOAA, via Associated Press

Tropical Storm Elsa is continuing on a path across the Caribbean, and may break northward toward Florida, further complicating search and rescue efforts at the Champlain Towers South condominium building.

Rescuers warned that the heavy rain and gusting winds it could bring to South Florida as soon as Sunday evening could hinder the work at the partially collapsed building. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Saturday that the part of the building that was still standing could not withstand the storm and that a contractor would demolish it before the storm arrived.

At a news conference on Friday, local leaders pledged to redouble rescue efforts in spite of the predicted weather. Thunderstorms and rain slowed the work at the site during the week, and no survivors were found.

“We’re not just running an emergency response, as you can see,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on Friday. “We’re also preparing our whole community for a possible storm at the same time.”

The storm, which had been a Category 1 hurricane, weakened slightly overnight Friday to Saturday, with its center passing south of the Dominican Republic. But it continued to pack near-hurricane winds as it tracked west-northwest toward Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba.

Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expected the storm to gradually turn northward, with storm-force winds reaching South Florida early Monday and the storm’s center crossing the Florida Keys and heading up the state’s west coast on Tuesday.

Search and rescue crews exiting the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Fla., on Monday.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Six emergency medical workers helping with rescue efforts at the site of a collapsed condo in Surfside, Fla., have tested positive for the coronavirus, Alan R. Cominsky, the chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said at a news conference on Saturday.

The workers, who were all part of the same task force, were no longer at the site, Chief Cominsky said, adding that contact tracing had been performed and that 424 members of other Florida task force teams responding to the site had been tested.

Chief Cominsky did not address the conditions of the six workers in his comments. It was unclear whether they had been vaccinated.

The chief told The Miami Herald on Friday that the six emergency medical workers were firefighters from Florida, but that they were not from Miami-Dade.

“We do have our medical procedures in place,” he told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, this is another challenge, but something we’ve been dealing with for over the past year.”

Average daily reports of new cases in Florida have risen by 55 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. Across the state, 65 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

At the news conference on Saturday, Chief Cominsky said the rescue effort would continue with teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana in addition to those from Florida.

Miami-Dade fire rescue officers standing by emergency trucks as search and rescue teams search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., on Friday.
Credit…Giorgio Viera/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

California sent nine emergency specialists to help search the rubble of the collapsed condo tower in Surfside on Friday, nearly a week after Florida authorities turned down an offer of help from the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s deployment of five urban search-and-rescue crew members and four structural specialists from fire departments in Orange County, Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland came as Hurricane Elsa threatened Florida and as the death toll in Surfside mounted. At least 24 people have been confirmed dead and as many as 121 people remain unaccounted for in the collapse.

Last weekend, in the early days of the search, the California Office of Emergency Services offered assistance, including state-of-the-art DNA analysis to help rescuers identify remains found in the rubble. The offer was turned down by Florida officials on Monday, as California restricted state-funded travel to Florida and four other states in response to anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation in those places.

Officials in Florida’s Division of Emergency Management said the refusal was apolitical and done at the behest of local emergency authorities in Miami-Dade County. “They had plenty of resources,” said Samantha Bequer, spokeswoman for the Florida emergency-management division, adding the state authorities didn’t “want to overwhelm them.”

Florida has accepted help in the disaster effort from some of the world’s most skilled and experienced search-and-rescue crews, including from Israel and Mexico. But state officials have also turned away some offers of aid, saying they were wary of complicating the delicate search for survivors by inundating the unstable search site with too many workers and too much equipment.

The initial California offer would have brought to bear technology that has been used in recent years to identify remains of victims from that state’s catastrophic disasters, including those who died in the 2018 wildfire in Paradise, Calif. Experts say the effort to clear the site and identify remains may take months, based on similar efforts at collapsed buildings. Identifying bodies with DNA provided by family members takes about 90 minutes, but additional confirmation of the remains by the medical examiner can take a day or longer.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services, said Florida emergency-management officials first contacted California requesting possible assistance. California officials determined what “specialized victim-identification capabilities” would be available for use and offered to share its expertise and equipment last weekend, he said.

However, he said, emergency managers in Florida later informed California that they had received an outpouring of support and no longer needed assistance. By Friday, that had changed, as the mayor of Miami-Dade County ordered the demolition of the portion of Champlain Towers South that is still standing and the nearby city of North Miami Beach undertook a building audit.

At least four of the California-based workers are specialists trained to assess buildings after disasters to determine whether it is safe to operate in them.

Neighbors, friends and relatives have turned a fence near the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., into a memorial for the dead and missing. Victoria Cavero of Surfside added some flowers to the memorial on Thursday.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Every day for the past week, Maria Noble has carried flowers two blocks from her house to the Surfside Tennis Center, where the black chain-link fence has been transformed into a makeshift memorial to victims of the Champlain Towers South disaster.

Ms. Noble, 71, did not know any residents of the collapsed condominium personally. But she has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years.

“So many people don’t know Surfside,” Ms. Noble said on Friday after carefully arranging three bouquets of white flowers — two hanging from the fence and one in a vase at its base. “It’s a friendly, friendly city and it’s too bad that what happened here is the way the world knows Surfside.”

Along with other neighbors and family members, Ms. Noble has helped expand the memorial from a smattering of paper fliers with photos of missing people and a small row of flowers beneath them into a vast array of bouquets affixed to the fence, interspersed with messages and prayers for the victims and their families.

Different people are remembered in different sections of the memorial. Ms. Noble has contributed flowers to many of them.

“One day I’m coming for one, later I go to another group, another group,” Ms. Noble said, motioning down the length of the fence.

On Friday morning, she brought flowers, a rosary and a votive candle with a lantern to protect the candle from the expected rain. She lay them by a photo of Leidy Luna Villalba, a 23-year-old woman who had arrived in Miami from Paraguay on June 23 to work as a nanny for the first lady of Paraguay’s family. The family and Ms. Villalba were sleeping at the condo when it collapsed, and are listed as missing.

“You imagine she was alone, maybe with family coming,” said Ms. Noble, who immigrated to the United States from Paraguay herself in 1982.

Ms. Villalba was studying to become a nurse, she added. “You imagine her coming for more success, and that happened,” she said, nodding to the memorial.


Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”

Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”

Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”

Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.

Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.

Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.

Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.

Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.

Also killed in the collapse was Magaly Elena Delgado, 80.

The New York Times

Engineers said that damaged columns at the collapse site appeared to have less steel reinforcement than what the design drawings called for.
Credit…Jason Pizzo

Engineers who have visited the scene or examined photos of the wreckage of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex have been struck by a possible flaw in its construction: Critical places near the base of the building appeared to use less steel reinforcement than called for in the project’s original design drawings.

The observation is the first detail to emerge pointing to a potential problem in the quality of construction of the 13-story condo tower in Surfside, Fla.

Allyn E. Kilsheimer, a forensic engineering expert hired by the town of Surfside to investigate the collapse, said the investigation was still in its early stages. But he confirmed there were signs that the amount of steel used to connect concrete slabs below a parking deck to the building’s vertical columns might be less than what the project’s initial plans specified.

“The bars might not be arranged like the original drawings call for,” Mr. Kilsheimer said in an interview. He said he would need to inspect the rubble more closely to determine whether in fact the slab-to-column connections contained less steel than expected.

The condo tower’s 1979 design drawings, provided by the town of Surfside and reviewed by structural engineers and The New York Times, indicate that the vertical columns in many parts of the building were supposed to provide a critical structural connection to horizontal slabs, embedded with eight rods of reinforcing steel — four in one direction, four in the other — near the tops of the slabs. But the reinforcing rods in the parking area, left exposed in many places after the parking deck slab slammed down to the lower level, appear to be fewer in number.

The investigation of the collapse could take months, so preliminary observations and findings could change. Some engineers said the possible shortfall in steel rebar in the relatively small part of the building they had examined should be seen not as a cause of the collapse, but it could potentially have been one of several factors that allowed whatever initiated the problem to accelerate into a catastrophic failure.