Search teams waged a desperate effort on Thursday afternoon to find and rescue survivors still trapped in the rubble of a high-rise condo building that collapsed in the dark of early morning in the oceanfront town of Surfside, Fla., just north of Miami Beach.
“They’re doing everything they can to save lives,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said at a news briefing. “We still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors.”
Officials have accounted for 53 people who lived in the building, but 99 people remained accounted for by mid-afternoon, said Rachel Johnson, a spokeswoman for the mayor of Miami-Dade County. Ms. Johnson stressed that the numbers continued to shift as the authorities figure out how many people were actually in the building overnight.
At least one person was killed in the collapse that survivors described as being “hit like a missile,” the authorities said. With so many people unaccounted for on Thursday, many more fatalities were feared.
Governor DeSantis said after touring the wreckage of the 12-story Champlain Towers South that search-and-rescue teams had “made contact” with some people and still hoped to identify survivors caught in the dusty jumble of concrete and steel.
The collapse transformed the picturesque town of Surfside, population 5,600, with its Art Deco hotels and mid-rise residential buildings, into a dazed scene of disaster and grief. Families flocked to a community center for news about missing loved ones. Survivors recalled being jolted awake about 1:30 a.m. to fire alarms, falling debris and the feeling of the ground trembling.
Rescue teams, some with dogs, picked through an unstable mountain of wreckage on Thursday amid concerns about the stability of the remaining part of the condo building. At one point, clouds of dust swirled through the scene.
Surveillance video from nearby buildings showed part of the residential tower shearing away in a cloud of dust, but the cause of the collapse was one of many urgent unanswered questions on Thursday. It was also unclear exactly how many people — alive or dead — might remain in the rubble.
Commissioner Sally Heyman of Miami-Dade County said on Thursday morning that county officials informed her that 51 people who own units in the building had not been accounted for. That did not mean they were missing, she said, just that the authorities had not been able to reach them.
She added that not all of the units may have been occupied by full-time residents.
Raysa Rodriguez, 59, who lives in the part of the building that remained standing, said she was awakened by what she thought was an earthquake. She then escaped down an emergency stairwell and off a second-floor balcony onto a rescue ladder.
“I lost a lot of friends,” said Ms. Rodriguez, who has owned a unit in the building since 2003. “They are not going to be able to find those people.”
Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, said that about half of the 136 units in the 12-story tower had collapsed.
About 35 people were rescued from the intact part of the building, and two were pulled from the rubble, said Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant fire chief.
Charles W. Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, told NBC’s “Today” show that dogs had been searching for people trapped under the rubble since 2 a.m.
“Just tragically, there haven’t been any hits from the dogs, and that’s a great disappointment,” he said. “Apparently, when the building came down, it pancaked. So there’s just not a lot of voids that they’re finding or seeing from the outside.”
The area has a robust Jewish community and longtime ties to South America from decades past when families kept beach apartments there, and many Jewish and South American residents were reported to be among the missing.
Not far from the collapsed building is a stretch of beloved businesses that include an Argentine bakery, a Venezuelan bakery and a Cuban restaurant. Further north are the ritzier municipalities of Sunny Isles Beach and Bal Harbour.
The beachside building at 8777 Collins Avenue was built in 1981, according to county property records.
Mr. Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, said it was unclear how stable the rest of the building was. He said 15 families were being relocated to hotels. “We don’t know if the rest of that building is going to come down.”
He said the scale of the collapse was overwhelming: “There’s not a lot that little Surfside can do but ring the alarm bell,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday afternoon.
Raysa Rodriguez, 59, was asleep in her apartment at Champlain Towers South when the building began to shake in the early hours of Thursday morning — as if there had been an earthquake. On the balcony, she saw a plume of white smoke. Ms. Rodriguez rushed to her front door. “When I opened the door, I’m like, ‘There’s no more building,’” she said.
Her unit, 907, is on the west side of the building, which stayed intact. But a few doors down, from unit 904 and onward on the building’s north side, everything was flattened, she said. She ran inside to put on shorts and shoes and to grab her purse.
Along with some neighbors, including an older neighbor with a walker and a child, Ms. Rodriguez used the emergency stairwell, which was dark and littered with debris, to get to the second floor. A neighbor on that floor had left her apartment door open, and Ms. Rodriguez and the others ran in and onto the balcony, where rescuers were able to reach them with a ladder.
“I lost a lot of friends,” Ms. Rodriguez, who has owned a unit in the building for nearly 20 years, said. “They are not going to be able to find those people.”
Another resident, Barry Cohen, a 63-year-old lawyer, said that he and his wife were asleep when he heard something that sounded like a loud thunderclap. “But it never stopped — it lasted for almost a minute,” he said. They went out onto the balcony of their third-floor apartment and saw rubble and plumes of smoke. When they tried to exit through their balcony, the staircase was blocked by rubble.
“Everything was just decimated,” said Mr. Cohen, a former Surfside vice mayor. “It looked like it had been hit by a missile.” They went down to the garage, but were again blocked from leaving. Pipes had broken and there was so much water that it went up to his shins. They raced back to their apartment and yelled to rescuers, “Get us out of here!” he said. “We were just freaking out.”
He and his wife were eventually rescued by fire fighters using a ladder to reach them.
He said that there had been constant construction around the building since he moved there in 2018. “Everyone was constantly being shaken,” he said.
Residents said that a mix of people lived there, including retirees and affluent professionals with young families. The building is three blocks down from the Four Seasons. Ivanka and Jared Trump are leasing a condominium a few buildings away, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
More than a hundred people gathered at the Surfside Community Center on Thursday morning, awaiting information on their loved ones who lived in Champlain Towers South.
Among them was Sergio Barth of Miami, whose brother Luis Barth, 51, was visiting town from Colombia with his wife and daughter and staying at a friend’s apartment in the building, on the collapsed side.
Sergio Barth tried all morning to reach his brother by phone. No response.
“We don’t know anything about him or his family,” Mr. Barth said as he clutched a cup of coffee. “Just keep your fingers crossed.”
People who were evacuated from a hotel next to the collapsed building also gathered at the center, including Aaron Miles and Abigail Crosby of Charlottesville, Va., both 20. They said they were woken by fire alarms and a commotion.
“It sounded like a hurricane,” Mr. Miles said. He heard debris hitting their hotel room windows as the building came down.
They were staying on the second floor of the hotel and were evacuated because of fears the hotel would also collapse. When they got downstairs, people were screaming, trying to find their loved ones in the collapsed building.
“We gave everybody hugs, and kept telling them it would be all right,” Mr. Miles said.
— Neil Reisner
Relatives of Paraguay’s first lady and an Argentine couple with a 6-year-old daughter were among the people missing in the rubble of the residential tower in Surfside, Fla., according to South American officials, news reports and relatives.
Paraguay’s foreign minister, Euclides Acevedo, said in a radio interview that among the Paraguayans who are unaccounted for are relatives of President Mario Abdo Benítez’s family. He identified them as Luis Pettengill, a cattle rancher, and his wife, Sophia López Moreira — a sister of the first lady, Silvana López Moreira. An employee of the family and the couple’s three children are also missing, he said.
Mr. Acevedo said Paraguay’s consulate in Miami had been searching for information about the family. “Our consul and his team are making the rounds at hospitals in Miami,” he said.
Lisandro Sabanés, a spokesman for Argentina’s foreign ministry, said Thursday morning that at least nine Argentines who were believed to have been in the building are unaccounted for. The Argentine newspaper La Nación has identified a few of them. They include Andrés Galfrascoli, his husband, Fabián Núñez, and their daughter, Sofía, who is 6.
La Nación reported that Dr. Galfrascoli is a plastic surgeon who has practices in Argentina and South Florida. Mr. Nuñez is a theater director, the newspaper reported.
A Chilean man, Claudio Bonnefoy, is also among those missing, according to his daughter, Pascale Bonnefoy. Ms. Bonnefoy, a Chilean journalist who writes for The New York Times, said her father, who is 85, lives in an apartment on the side of the building that collapsed. He lives with his wife, María Obias-Bonnefoy.
“Their apartment is in the rubble,” Ms. Bonnefoy said.
People seeking information about family members who are unaccounted for after the collapse of an oceanfront condominium in Surfside, Fla., can use the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue hotline and a reunification center a few blocks north of the site of the building.
To report to officials a person who is either missing or who has been found, family members are asked to call 305-614-1819 or go to miamidade.gov/emergency.
“Chaplains and victim advocates are on site, ready to support the survivors and family members who will be in need of resources,” said Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County at a news conference Thursday morning. “Our social service agencies, as well, are coming in — they are going to be here to assist in the hours and the days ahead.”
The American Red Cross is providing food and mental health support at the family reception center and helping residents find a safe place to stay.
“We appreciate the outpouring of support and community members reaching out to the Red Cross to offer their help during this challenging moment,” a Red Cross spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “At this time, we have all the resources and assistance we need.”
A family reunification center has been set up at the Surfside Community Center at 9301 Collins Ave.
— Sophie Kasakove
Several witnesses described the scene of the collapse on Thursday.
Nicholas Balboa, 31, said he was outside at about 1:30 a.m. when he heard a rumble. He thought it was thunder at first — and then felt the ground shake.
“I went up the street and saw the dust cloud going through the corridor of buildings,” said Mr. Balboa, who lives in Phoenix but was visiting his father in Surfside. He raced toward the sound and saw the partially collapsed building.
Emergency crews had started to arrive. Mr. Balboa walked toward the site to get a better look. That’s when he heard a boy call out for help.
“We could see his arms sticking out and his fingers wiggling,” Mr. Balboa said. “He was just saying, ‘Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.’” Mr. Balboa and another bystander climbed through the rubble and tried getting closer.
The boy said his mother had been with him, but Mr. Balboa heard no other voices. Using the flashlight on his cellphone, Mr. Balboa flagged a police officer, who rushed toward them with a rescue crew.
The crew dug through debris and used a saw to get the boy out, Mr. Balboa said. “It was surreal. I can’t believe that a building that’s made out of concrete and supposed to stand up to hurricanes and weather just one night decided to collapse,” he said. “To be completely honest, the comparison, the stark image that I had in my mind, was 9/11, just seeing all that debris and rubble.”
Fiorella Terenzi, an associate professor at Florida International University who lives in a neighboring building, Champlain Towers East, said she was woken up by a loud noise.
The sound “was like a big thump all of a sudden,” she said. At first she thought it was thunder but then started to hear sirens. When she left the building, dust was everywhere.
“I could see that half of the building of the Champlain Towers South was collapsed like a sandwich,” said Ms. Terenzi, 59, who has lived in the east tower since 2000. “It really was a shocking view.” Ms. Terenzi said she had seen heavy equipment on the roof of the south tower for the past two weeks.
Lizie Brito, 41, said she was on her balcony at a nearby building when she saw a swirling white cloud of dust come toward her. At first, she said, she thought it was a tornado. Then she heard an explosion and screams as people ran from the next-door hotel. She couldn’t sleep after that.
“Imagine thinking about the people that were struggling, dying there, and then thinking that maybe this could happen to us in our building,” Ms. Brito said.
Allen Rosenbach, 62, one of Ms. Brito’s neighbors, came to the beach Thursday to see the rubble. He received a text from his wife with names of people who were still missing, some of whom they knew. One of his son’s classmates, he said, lived on the side of the building that collapsed.
Hours after the building’s collapse on Thursday, photos and videos captured by witnesses and surveillance cameras were posted on social media:
JUST IN: 7News has obtained surveillance video of the moment the Champlain Towers South Condo collapsed in Surfside early this morning.
Public officials in Florida expressed shock at the news of the condominium collapse in Surfside on Thursday morning and offered prayers for the residents of the building and for emergency workers on the scene.
Representative Charlie Crist shared his prayers for the “residents of Champlain Towers, their families, and the first responders at this tragic scene who are saving lives,” in a tweet.
Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County tweeted that she had spoken with President Biden about the collapse: “He offered the full support of the federal gov. to help our community during this difficult time. We continue to work with local, state, & federal agencies as we respond to this tragedy and do everything we can to support the impacted families.”
Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside, the town in Miami-Dade County where the building is located, spoke to reporters Thursday morning: “Nothing like this has happened to us,” he said. “And I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Representative Maria Elvira Salazar tweeted that the incident was “devastating” and that her “prayers are with all of the families & our brave @MiamiBeachPD & @MiamiDadeFire who are fighting around the clock to save lives,” sharing the same message in Spanish.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said, “While details are still emerging, we pray that the casualties are limited and first responders are safe as they address this horrific collapse.”
Local county commissioners shared their prayers for the victims, too. The chairman of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, tweeted from the site of the building collapse: “My deepest prayers are with the residents and their families on this tragic morning. Thank you to all the brave first responders who quickly responded to help the victims.”
— Sophie Kasakove