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1 killed, dozens missing as building collapses in heavily Jewish Florida town

Mayor of Surfside warns death toll likely to rise as mass fatalities feared from partial crumbling of residential tower; some 20 members of Jewish community said among the missing

This aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed on early June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Florida.  (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
This aerial photo shows part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo that collapsed on early June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

SURFSIDE, Florida — A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed in a town outside Miami early Thursday morning, killing at least one person while trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled out dozens of survivors and continued to look for more.

Dozens of people were still unaccounted for at midday, raising fears that the death toll could climb sharply. But officials did not know how many were in the tower when it fell around 1:30 a.m Thursday.

The mayor of Surfside, a US town of 6,000 with a significant Jewish population, warned during a news conference that the death toll was likely to rise.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Charles Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

Rescuers had pulled 35 people from the building by mid-morning and were continuing to look for more, Raide Jadallah, assistant fire chief of operations for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said at a news conference.

Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.

Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage, but it was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman told CNN that 51 residents of the building were unaccounted for, although it was unclear how many of them had been in the building during the collapse.

Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.

The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett said.

Jewish emergency response services were also taking part in the rescue efforts.

Hatzalah of South Florida, an Orthodox ambulance service, has established a command center at the collapse site, according to a tweet posted early Thursday by Chevra Hatzalah, the service covering New York City.

Nearly half of Surfside’s residents are Orthodox Jews, many associated with the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch movement, which established a presence in the area in the 1980s. WhatsApp groups with many Orthodox Jews who have ties to the area buzzed Thursday with concerns about community members. Some listed names of people understood to be missing.

According to Hebrew media reports, around 20 members of the local Jewish community, some with dual US-Israeli citizenship, were among those missing after the collapse.

A Miami-Dade Police helicopter flies over the Champlain Towers South Condo after the multistory building partially collapsed, June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke by phone with Israel’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, who updated him on the state of operations on the ground.

Lapid also spoke with Jacob Solomon, the head of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

“Foreign Ministry staff in Miami and Israel are doing everything they can to help those on the ground, the wounded and the families. It is a difficult and complex event and it will take time to deal with it. We are at their disposal for any assistance they may need,” Lapid said.

The collapsed building is on Collins Avenue, one mile south of The Shul, an Orthodox synagogue where last week Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed bills granting new privileges to Hatzalah of South Florida and creating a daily moment of silence in Florida schools.

DeSantis told reporters that the state is “bracing for some bad news” following the collapse.

“It’s a really, really tragic situation,” he said before heading to the disaster site. “We’ll hope for the best in terms of additional recoveries, but we are bracing for some bad news just given the destruction that we’re seeing.”

Touring the scene, DeSantis said television did not capture the scale of what happened.

Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.

People look at the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, June 24, 2021. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)

The collapse left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside. Air conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” the mayor said.

Burkett also said work is currently being done on the building’s roof, but stressed he did not see how that could have caused the collapse. Authorities did not say what the cause may be.

Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”

“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”

He and his wife eventually made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.

Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

Santo Mejil, 50, told the Miami Herald that his wife called him from the building, where she was working as an aide for an elderly woman.

“She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake,” Mejil told the newspaper. He said she later called him and said rescuers were bringing her down.

A section of a partially collapsed building is seen early June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami Dade Fire Rescue was conducting search and rescue operations, and said in a tweet that more than 80 units were “on scene with assistance from municipal fire departments.”

Police blocked nearby roads, and scores of fire and rescue vehicles, ambulances and police cars swarmed the area. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

“We’re on the scene so it’s still very active,” said Sgt. Marian Cruz of the Surfside Police Department. “What I can tell you is the building is 12 floors. The entire back side of the building has collapsed.”

The collapse appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower. Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with a light layer of dust from the debris.

The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000.

The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The community provides a stark contrast from the bustle and glitz of nearby South Beach with a slower-paced neighborhood feel.

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