SURFSIDE, Fla., June 27 (Reuters) - The official death toll from the partial collapse of a high-rise condominium complex near Miami rose to nine on Sunday, with more than 150 people still missing, as rescue teams picked through the rubble for a fourth day without detecting further signs of life.
What caused nearly half the 12-story, 156-unit building to cave in in the early hours of Thursday as residents slept has yet to be determined, but a 2018 engineer's inspection report found major structural deterioration in the parking garage beneath the 40-year-old tower.
Officials in Surfside, the shore town near Miami where the building stood along the beach, said hope remained that rescuers would yet discover survivors in air pockets that may have formed in the pancaked debris.
Even so, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said on Sunday that crews had yet to find such voids in the rubble or signs of anyone alive since early in the tragedy, when faint sounds were detected.
"It's an extremely difficult situation," Cominsky said. "Our rescue teams are nonstop, doing all that we can, searching every area, every bit of hope, to see if we can find a live victim."
Two large cranes and two backhoes on Sunday joined in the debris-removal efforts that had previously been conducted essentially by hand by teams also using rescue dogs, sonar, drones and infrared scanners as they gingerly tunneled through the ruins.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said six to eight squads of rescuers were working on the multi-story pile of shattered concrete and twisted metal laying next to the portion of the Champlain Towers South condo that remained standing.
"Hundreds of team members are on standby to rotate as we need a fresh start," Levine Cava said at a briefing in which she announced the death toll had risen to nine, with the number of individuals still unaccounted for standing at 152.
The mayor later said those figures would remain "extremely fluid."
The teams included experts sent by Israel and Mexico to assist in the search. An American flag atop one crane rippled in the stiff ocean breeze.
Given the scores of those still missing, the disaster may end up to be one of the deadliest non-deliberate structural failures in U.S. history.
By comparison, 98 people perished when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., gave way from the weight of snow during a silent movie screening in January 1922. Two interior walkways collapsed into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, during a dance party in July 1981, killing 114 individuals.
OF LUCK & MIRACLES
A smoldering fire beneath the rubble that hindered the work of rescuers had abated by Sunday morning, officials said. The mayor said a trench was burrowed through the rubble to separate the areas of smoking debris from the rest of the wreckage. Weekend thunderstorms also hampered search efforts.
"Our luck, at least with respect to the weather and the fires, has seemed to turn now. We just need to see a few more miracles each day, and we need to start pulling people out of that rubble and reunite them with the families," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told a Sunday evening briefing.
Some relatives of those missing have provided DNA samples to officials, and family members were permitted to pay a private visit to the site by special arrangement on Sunday, Levine Cava said.
Referring to the families, Governor Ron DeSantis told Miami television station WPLG-TV: "You realize you’re going to potentially have terrible news, but you just don’t have it. You’re kind of waiting. And they just want answers."
Police released the names of four victims who ranged in age from 54 to 83 - a couple married for 58 years, a volunteer Little League baseball coach and the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble shortly after the collapse.
Photographs of the missing were posted on a nearby fence, along with flowers and messages. "The Lord is My Refuge" read one handmade sign. "Surfside God is with you" said another.
Surfside officials have released documents including the engineer's report from 2018, which cited major structural damage beneath the building's pool deck and "concrete deterioration" in the underground parking garage.
The report was produced for the Champlain Towers South condominium board in preparation for a major repair project set for this year.
Gregg Schlesinger, a lawyer and former general contractor who specializes in construction-failure cases, said it was clear that the deficiencies identified in the 2018 report were the main cause of the disaster.
Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer who works with the condo association, said the issues outlined in the 2018 report were typical for older buildings in the area and did not alarm board members, all of whom lived in the tower with their families.
The report estimated it would cost $9.1 million to make the recommended repairs. Work had started on replacing the roof, but the pandemic slowed the project, she said.
Satellite data from the 1990s showed the building was sinking 1 to 3 millimeters per year, while surrounding buildings were stable, according to Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinski.
Schlesinger said investigations and the inevitable lawsuits would eventually reveal the cause of the collapse.
"But we do know one thing: there was a structural failure," he said. "We know another thing: The structural failure should not have occurred."
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