Site of Florida condo collapse is cleared with 97 bodies recovered

Search for bodies comes to an end at site of Florida condo collapse after 97 bodies are recovered with just one person still unaccounted for, four weeks after tragedy

  • Miami-Dade County fire and rescue department on Friday declared an end to its search for human remains in the rubble of a Florida condominium
  • The tower collapsed on June 24, killing at least 97 people with authorities believing one victim is still unaccounted for
  • Miami-Dade Police Department will continue to sift through what is left of the debris pile for additional remains and personal effects
  • Fire department worked round-the-clock at the beachfront site of the Champlain Towers South condo, in the Miami suburb of Surfside for four weeks and a day 
  • 40-year-old, 12-story structure gave way at 1:30am on June 24 as residents slept
  • No one has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverized concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours after the collapse 
  • Authorities formally gave up hope of finding any survivors on July 7
  • Investigators have yet to determine what caused about half of the 136-unit highrise to cave in on itself 

Firefighters on Friday declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed Florida condo building, concluding a month of painstaking work removing layers of dangerous debris that were once piled several stories high.

The June 24 collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South killed 97 people, with at least one more missing person yet to be identified. 

The site has been mostly swept flat and the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.

Captain Eric Hernandez lifts up his daughter Isabella, 3, as his wife Yaimara and son Eric, 4, look on, as members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search and rescue team are reunited with their families after weeks of working on the rubble pile at the collapsed Champlain Towers

Isabella, 3, and Eric, 4, wait to welcome home their father, Capt. Eric Hernandez

Construction lights surround the area of land where the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building stood in Surfside, Florida 

Twisted pieces of metal bars protrude from the remains of walls in the area of land block stood

A month since the Champlain Towers South partially collapsed, the site is mostly cleared and debris has been relocated to a different site

Photos showing the cleaned up area where the Surfside Condos was located

It took just under a month to have the entire site completely cleared away

Twenty-six million pounds of rubble was  moved offsite where the recovery effort continues to identify the remains of one victim still unaccounted for 

BEFORE: Rescue and recovery workers had spent nearly four weeks combing through and removing the rubble of the building. It is pictured on June 24 the day of its collapse

Except during the early hours after the collapse, survivors never emerged. Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. 

They went through more than 14,000 tons of broken concrete and rebar, often working boulder by bounder, rock by rock, before finally declaring the mission complete.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles, slowly driving to their headquarters for a news conference to announce that the search was officially over.

‘At this step in the recovery process it has become increasingly challenging to identify victims, and we are relying heavily on the work of the medical examiner’s office and the scientific, technical process of identifying human remains,’ Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in a statement. 

She hailed members of the search and recovery teams as ‘true superheroes.’ 

At a ceremony, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky saluted the firefighters who worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site.

‘It´s obviously devastating. It’s obviously a difficult situation across the board,’ Cominsky said. ‘I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women that represent Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.’

‘Providing closure to families was the ultimate test of everybody here,’ Scott Dean, leader of one of the two task forces that worked in 12-hour shifts at the disaster site, said at a welcome-home gathering at Fire and Rescue headquarters.

Officials have declined to clarify whether they have one additional set of human remains in hand that pathologists are struggling to identify or whether a search for that final set of remains continues.

Estelle Hedaya, 54, appears to be the only missing victim yet to be identified after the June 24 collapse

Family members wait for news over Estelle Hedaya, pictured, whose remains have not been identified

Well-wishers and mourners gather at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse, for a multi-faith vigil earlier this month

If found, Estelle Hedaya would bring the death toll to 98.

Hedaya was an outgoing 54-year-old who loved to travel and was fond of striking up conversations with strangers. Her younger brother Ikey has given DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the search efforts for himself.

‘As we enter month two alone, without any other families, we feel helpless,’ he said on Friday. He said he gets frequent updates from the medical examiner’s office.

Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, is worried that she will be forgotten.

‘They seem to be packing up and congratulating everyone on a job well done. And yes, they deserve all the accolades, but after they find Estelle.’

The dead included members of the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady, her family and their nanny, as well as a local salesman, his wife and their two young daughters.

As time went on and the possibility of finding survivors diminished, crews on the ground remained dedicated to the arduous task of combing through the rubble

All that remains are a handful of scattered concrete stumps in the imprint of the building

A security guard stands in front of the area of land where the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building was located in Surfside, Florida

Some of the debris is being saved in a warehouse as evidence for the investigation into how the building collapsed. The rest is being stored in a lot so survivors and families can go through it at a later date

Crews are pictured working in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continued at the site of the partially collapsed condo building earlier in July

Search and rescue team members are pictured climbing the debris field of the 12-story oceanfront condo

Workers walked past the site on July 6, a little more than a week into the rescue and recovery effort

The collapse fueled a race to inspect other aging residential towers in Florida and beyond, and it raised broader questions about the nation’s regulations governing condominium associations and building safety.

Shortly after the disaster, it became clear that warnings about Champlain Towers South, which opened in 1981, had gone unheeded. A 2018 engineering report detailed cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking garage and other problems that would cost nearly $10 million to fix.

The repairs did not happen, and the estimate grew to $15 million this year as the owners of the building’s 136 units and its governing condo board squabbled over the cost, especially after a Surfside town inspector told them the building was safe.

Investigators have yet to determine what caused about half of the 136-unit highrise to cave in on itself in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history. The portion of the structure that was left standing, but unstable, was deliberately demolished about 10 days later.

With the remains of the 12 story building removed, local officials said they hoped for a return to normal

An aerial view of the site on July 1 shows the rescue operation at the Champlain Tower

A 2018 engineering report found structural deficiencies that are now the focus of several inquiries, including a grand jury investigation.

A complete collapse was all but impossible to imagine. As many officials said in the catastrophe’s first days, buildings of that size do not just collapse in the U.S. outside of a terrorist attack. Even tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes rarely bring them down.

The ultimate fate of the property where the building once stood has yet to be determined. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead.

‘All options are on the table,’ Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said this week at a hearing.

The disaster was one of the nation’s deadliest engineering failures. A set of overhead walkways collapsed at a Kansas City hotel in 1981, killing 114 people attending a dance. But that wasn’t the structure itself. A Washington, D.C., movie theater collapsed in 1922, killing 98. But that came after a blizzard dumped feet of snow on the flat roof.

In the weeks after the collapse, a 28-story courthouse in downtown Miami, built in 1928, and two apartment buildings were closed after inspectors uncovered structural problems. They will remain shut until repairs are made.

The first calls to 911 came at about 1:20am, when Champlain residents reported that the parking garage had collapsed. A woman standing on her balcony called her husband, who was on a business trip, and said the swimming pool had fallen into the garage.

Then, in an instant, a section of the L-shaped building fell straight down. Eight seconds later, another section followed, leaving 35 people alive in the standing portion. In the initial hours, a teen was rescued, and firefighters believed others might be found alive. 

Almost 100 people were killed when 55 of the 136 units in the 13-story tower collapsed in the early hours of June 24

They took hope from noises emanating from inside the pile that might have been survivors tapping, but in retrospect the sounds came from shifting debris.

Rescue crews worked tirelessly, even when smoke and heat from a fire inside the building’s standing portion hampered their efforts. They persisted when the temperatures pushed into the upper 90sF under the blazing sun, some toiling until they needed IVs to replenish fluids. 

They carried on when Tropical Storm Elsa passed nearby and dumped torrential rain and only left the pile only when lightning developed.

The portion of the building that remained standing posed another grave threat as it loomed precariously above the workers. Authorities ordered it demolished on July 4.

In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, Cominsky said.

Search and Rescue personnel search in the hours after the collapse on June 24. Now, 97 bodies have been found around one month on 

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