Israel providing aid at scene of Florida building collapse, offers rescue team

Consul general in Miami tells Times of Israel they are providing food, clothes, medication and other aid; notes that several of 35 Jews missing have 'Israel connections'

(L-R) Israeli Consul General in Miami Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, Tallahassee Chabad Rabbi Schneur Oirechman and Florida Senator Rick Scott at the scene of a condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida on June 25, 2021. (Consulate of Israel in Miami)

Israel is providing food, clothes, medication and other aid as rescue teams continued digging through the rubble of a collapsed condo building home to dozens of Jewish families in a Miami suburb, Israel’s Consul General Maor Elbaz-Starinsky told The Times of Israel on Friday.

In addition to the aid, he also conveyed an official offer for Israel to send the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command search and rescue team to assist in the efforts. Elbaz-Starinsky has been in touch with local authorities but said they had not gotten back to him on the proposal.

The death toll stood at four late Friday morning, though authorities worried the number would climb significantly as the search through the rubble of the 12-story building that collapsed on Thursday was still ongoing.

Elbaz-Starinsky said that 35 of the 159 people unaccounted for were Jewish. While several had “Israel connections,” he said it was not yet clear whether any of the victims were Israeli citizens.

The consul general noted, “the community over here — not only the Jewish and Israeli [communities] — has shown outstanding solidarity. Everyone came together bringing food, blankets and equipment. They even built a kosher kitchen.”

“It’s incredible to see the commitment of everyone to ease, just a little bit, the suffering of the affected families,” Elbaz-Starinsky added.

People look towards a 12-story beachfront condo building that partially collapsed, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

He also noted that the condo building includes owners who only live there for the holidays or certain parts of the year so it was unclear how many might still be under the rubble and how many were out of town when the building collapsed.

Later, speaking to Channel 12, Elbaz-Starinsky conceded that Israel’s aid at this stage was “largely symbolic,” but Israel wanted to “help in any way possible.”

It appeared unlikely that the US would take up Israel’s offer to send the IDF’s search and rescue team, which have assisted in major disasters around the world in recent years, including in Mexico and Brazil.

“We do not have a resource problem, we have a luck problem,” said Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett on attempts to find survivors under the rubble.

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

“Any time that we hear a sound, we concentrate in that area,” said Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Raide Jadallah. “It could be just steel twisting, it could be debris raining down, but not specifically sounds of tapping or sounds of a human voice.”

A crane removes wreckage of a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, Florida on June 25, 2021. (Photo by Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP)

Buffeted by gusty winds and pelted by intermittent rain showers, two heavy cranes began removing debris from the pile using large claws Friday morning, creating a din of crashing glass and metal as they picked up material and dumped it to the side.

Once the machines paused, fire crews moved in to remove smaller pieces by hand in hope of finding spots where people might be trapped, said Burkett.

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

The work focused on what was left of 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.

“We are a very tight community,” Zalmi Duchman, a 41-year-old who lives a few blocks away from the disaster scene at the Champlain Towers complex, told AFP. “We know many of the family members who live in the building, or relatives.”

Duchman, who has lived in Surfside for 20 years after growing up in nearby Miami Beach, lent a helping hand Friday at a local community center, now a gathering point for those seeking information about the 159 people still unaccounted for.

“Something like this is just impossible to expect — you go to sleep at night and then…” Duchman said.

“Obviously, it has hit us very hard, but there is still hope. As Jews, we believe heavily in miracles and never giving up, resilience, trying to stay positive in dark times.”

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)

“Not enough is being done,” said Mike Salberg, who came from New York after the accident. Five of his family members, including his parents, are unaccounted for.

“I want answers,” he told AFP. “The families are sidelined. We’re being told that they have the best crews but they don’t have the ability and the capacity… 40 hours later, four dead.”

He said he hoped the rescue team being offered by Israel would be able to take part in the search.

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.

An Orthodox Jewish man walks inside the Shul of Bal Harbour where worshippers were praying after members of the community were reported missing in the partial collapse of a 12-story beachfront condo, Thursday, 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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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