Surfside disaster death toll rises to 32 as weather threatens to hamper search

Rescue workers vow to continue efforts at the site of the building collapse, with up to 113 still unaccounted for; Chabad couple among those confirmed killed

In this Monday, July 5, 2021, file photo, rescue workers move a stretcher containing recovered remains at the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, in Surfside, Florida. (AP/Lynne Sladky)
In this Monday, July 5, 2021, file photo, rescue workers move a stretcher containing recovered remains at the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, in Surfside, Florida. (AP/Lynne Sladky)

SURFSIDE, Florida — The discovery of four more victims in the rubble of the collapsed Surfside condominium building raised the death toll to 32, officials said Tuesday, as a ramped-up search effort faces new threats from severe weather, with Tropical Storm Elsa due to hit Florida’s shores.

Lightning forced rescuers to pause their work for two hours early Tuesday, Miami-Dade assistant fire chief Raide Jadallah said. And stiff winds of 20 miles per hour hampered efforts to move heavy debris with cranes, officials said at a morning news conference.

“Active search and rescue continued throughout the night, and these teams continue through extremely adverse and challenging conditions,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters. “Through the rain and through the wind, they have continued searching.”

Up to 113 people remain unaccounted for, though only 70 of those are confirmed to have been inside the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside when it collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24, she said.

Search crews can work through rain, but lightning has forced them to pause at times, and a garage area in the rubble has filled with water, officials said.

“We’re actively searching as aggressively as we can,” said Miami-Dade fire chief Alan Cominsky.

Crews have removed 124 tons of debris from the collapse site. As search crews have pulled more bodies from the rubble, they have detected no new signs of survivors, Cominsky said.

“We are not seeing anything positive,” he said.

Among those whose bodies were pulled out of the rubble over the last two days were Tzvi Ainsworth, 68, and Itty Ainsworth, 66, members of the local Chabad community.

The couple had returned to the US from Australia several years ago to be near their seven children, many of whom live in South Florida, according to local media reports. They celebrated the birth of a new grandchild the day before the collapse, the local NBC affiliate in Miami reported.

Tzvi Ainsworth, left, and Itty Ainsworth, right (Facebook via JTA)

“Every person she encountered ever in her life became her friend. Everyone was treated as equals,” their daughter, Chana Wasserman, wrote in a Mother’s Day blog post to her mother Itty last year.

At the disaster site Tuesday morning, power saws and backhoes could be heard, as workers in yellow helmets and blue jumpsuits searched the rubble for a 13th day. Gray clouds from Elsa’s outer bands swirled above.

The demolition of the remaining wing of the building late Sunday has allowed crews into previously inaccessible places, including bedrooms where people were believed to be sleeping at the time of the disaster, officials said. They said it raised the prospect that rescue teams could increase both the pace of their work and the number of searchers at the site.

Despite the renewed hope the demolition brought to the search and rescue effort, officials admitted that the chance of finding survivors 12 days after the June 24 collapse was close to zero.

While no one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the collapse, rescuers were still holding out hope of reuniting loved ones.

“We continue to remain focused on our primary mission, and that is to leave no stone unturned, and to find as many people as we can, and to help bring either some answers to family and loved ones or to bring some closure to them,” City of Miami fire rescue captain Ignatius Carroll said Tuesday.

Rescue workers continue working on a pile of debris after the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo was taken down with a controlled demolition on July 5, 2021 in Surfside, Florida (Saul Martinez / Getty Images North America / Getty Images via AFP)

While officials are still calling their efforts a search and rescue operation, Cava said families of those still missing are preparing for news of “tragic loss.”

“I think everybody will be ready when it’s time to move to the next phase,” the mayor said

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