Death toll in Miami building collapse rises to 4; 159 still missing

Dozens of Jewish residents feared among the missing; President Rivlin sends prayers and condolences; Israel offers aid and assistance to communities

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue personnel spray water on a fire in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building as search and rescue operations continue on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue personnel spray water on a fire in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building as search and rescue operations continue on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

SURFSIDE, Fla. — About 160 people were still unaccounted for Friday a day after an oceanside condominium building collapsed into a pile of rubble, and searchers combing through a twisted, shifting pile of concrete and metal feared the death toll of at least four could go much higher.

With scores of firefighters working overnight to reach any possible survivors both from under and atop the remains of the building, hopes rested on how quickly crews using dogs and microphones to sift through the wreckage could complete their grim, yet delicate task.

“Every time we hear a sound, we concentrate on those areas,” said Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Raide Jadallah.

Three more bodies were removed overnight, and Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said authorities were working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the victims. Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said rescuers were at “extreme risk” going through the rubble.

“Debris is falling on them as they do their work. We have structural engineers on site to ensure that they will not be injured, but they are proceeding because they are so motivated and they are taking extraordinary risk on the site every day,” she said.

Workers use a lift to investigate balconies in the still-standing portion of the building adjacent to where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed, late on Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The work focused on what was left of 12-story Champlain Towers South, which drew people from around the globe to enjoy life on South Florida’s Atlantic Coast, some for a night, some to live. A couple from Argentina and their young daughter. A beloved retired Miami-area teacher and his wife. Orthodox Jews from Russia. Israelis. The sister of Paraguay’s first lady. Others from South America.

There is a large Jewish community in the area and at least 34 of those believed to be missing are Jewish, the Chabad of South Broward in Hallandale Beach told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Dozens of people gathered at ‘The Shul’ in Bal Harbour, a nearby synagogue, to pray for those missing and injured on Thursday, as names of those still unaccounted for circulated in WhatsApp messages around the globe. The synagogue was also coordinating donations and supplies arriving from around the world as news spread of the tragedy.

Jewish faithful pray at the Shul of Bal Harbour after members of the community were reported missing in the partial collapse of a 12-story beachfront condo, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Friday said he was praying for the victims.

“Our prayers are with the families anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones in Miami. We hope for the recovery of the survivors and send heartfelt condolences to those who have lost family members,” Rivlin said.

Earlier Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was following the “difficult images” from Florida with concern.

“Our Foreign Ministry representatives in Miami and Israel are doing everything possible to assist and address the situation,” he said in a statement. “The entire nation of Israel prays for the safety of those injured and missing in the disaster.”

He added: “From here we send support to our brethren in the Jewish community in particular, and to all Florida residents in general, and express our sorrow following this tragic event.”

Army radio reported Friday that Bennett was sending Diaspora Affairs Minister  Nachman Shai to Florida and he would depart Israel on Saturday night.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, no Israeli nationals are currently known to be unaccounted for. Earlier reports indicated that some 20 of those missing were Israeli citizens.

Israeli consul-general in Miami Maor Elbaz-Starinsky said the hope of finding people alive was dwindling.

“The atmosphere here is very pessimistic,” Elbaz-Starinsky told Ynet. “This is a very tragic incident… We’re in contact with the families of the missing about the possibility of bringing a rescue team from Israel if necessary.”

Rescue workers remove a body from the rubble where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he had spoken to Elbaz-Starinsky and the head of the local Jewish Federation to offer support.

“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 in a Foreign Ministry statement.

A spokesperson for Israel’s consulate in Miami said that Jerusalem had offered search and rescue help or other aid to local authorities, but had yet to receive an answer. Israeli search and rescue teams are often dispatched abroad to aid in missions following earthquakes and other disasters.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami Beach told the Miami Herald he watched as tactical teams of six worked early Friday to sift through the debris. He said he saw one body taken in a yellow body bag and another that was marked. They were taken to a homicide unit tent that was set up along the beach.

Many people remained at the reunification center set up near the collapse site early Friday morning, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.

Officials said no cause for the collapse has been determined.

Video of the collapse showed the center of the building appearing to tumble down first and a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later, as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.

About half the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, and rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage in the first hours after the collapse. But with 159 still unaccounted for, work could go on for days.

Television video early Friday showed crews still fighting flareups of fires on the rubble piles. Intermittent rain over South Florida is also hampering the search.

Raide Jadallah, an assistant Miami-Dade County fire chief, said that while listening devices placed on and in the wreckage had picked up no voices, they had detected possible banging noises, giving rescuers hope some are alive. Rescuers were tunneling into the wreckage from below, going through the building’s underground parking garage.

A view of a building is shown after a partial collapse, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Personal belongings were evidence of shattered lives amid the wreckage of the Champlain, which was built in 1981 in Surfside, a small suburb north of Miami Beach. A children’s bunk bed perched precariously on a top floor, bent but intact and apparently inches from falling into the rubble. A comforter lay on the edge of a lower floor. Televisions. Computers. Chairs.

Argentines Dr. Andres Galfrascoli, his husband, Fabian Nuñez, and their 6-year-old daughter, Sofia, had spent Wednesday night there at an apartment belonging to a friend, Nicolas Fernandez.

Galfrascoli, a Buenos Aires plastic surgeon, and Nuñez, a theater producer and accountant, had come to Florida to get away from a COVID-19 resurgence in Argentina and its strict lockdowns. They had worked hard to adopt Sofia, Fernandez said.

“Of all days, they chose the worst to stay there,” Fernandez said. “I hope it’s not the case, but if they die like this, that would be so unfair.”

They weren’t the only South Americans missing. Foreign ministries and consulates of four countries said 22 nationals were missing in the collapse: nine from Argentina, six from Paraguay, four from Venezuela and three from Uruguay.

The Paraguayans included Sophia López Moreira — the sister of first lady Silvana Abdo and sister-in-law of President Mario Abdo Benítez — and her family.

Also missing was Arnie Notkin, a retired Miami-area elementary school physical education teacher, and his wife, Myriam. They lived on the third floor.

“Everyone’s been posting, ‘Oh my God, he was my coach,’” said Fortuna Smukler, a friend who turned to Facebook in hopes of finding someone who would report them safe.

“They were also such happy, joyful people. He always had a story to tell, and she always spoke so kindly of my mother,” Smukler said. “Originally there were rumors that he had been found, but it was a case of mistaken identity. It would be a miracle if they’re found alive.”

Maria Fernanda Martinez, Fayzah Bushnaq, and Mariana Cordeiro comfort each other near where search and rescue operations continue at the site of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

US President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Florida following the collapse of the apartment building.

Biden ordered federal assistance be deployed to the site and directed the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

“I made it clear that I say to the people of Florida: Whatever help you want that the federal government can provide, we’re waiting,” Biden said earlier Thursday. “Just ask us; we’ll be there. We’ll be there.”

Shimon Wdowinski, an Israeli-born professor at Florida International University, said a 2020 study of the area surrounding the building found that the structure was slowly sinking in the 1990s.

This aerial view shows search and rescue personnel working on site after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

“We cannot say what is the reason for that from the satellite images but we can say there was movement here,” Wdowinski said, according to the university. But he cautioned that such sinking is unlikely to have caused the building’s collapse without other factors at play.

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