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Rescue Crews Continue Search For Missing Victims In Florida Building Collapse


Search and rescue teams worked through the night to find survivors of a building collapse that happened early Thursday in Surfside, Fla. It's now been more than 24 hours since part of a 12-story condominium tower collapsed without any warning. At an evening briefing, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava gave a grim tally of residents who lived in the building.


DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: We did identify and declare as safe 102 people. And 99 we still cannot account for.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Greg, authorities say 55 apartment units collapsed when the condo building came down. Do we know how many people in those units got out safely? We heard the mayor there say 102 people are safe.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Right - 102 people in the towers. But from the parts that collapsed, it's really still not clear. Fire crews were able to rescue 37 people yesterday. Thirty-five of those people came from balconies in the damaged apartments that were in the building - part of the building that was still standing. Two people were pulled from the rubble early yesterday, but the scene there at the Champlain Towers condo has not been encouraging. You have 12 stories that just pancaked, leaving a pile of rubble on the ground.

The state senator who represents the area, Jason Pizzo, told the Miami Herald he saw two bodies being recovered early this morning. That would make at least three people dead at this point. And that's a death toll likely to rise. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz visited the site yesterday. It's in her district. And she said the devastation was unlike anything she's ever seen.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: To see one building come down like this inexplicably - having a chance to talk to the families whose hearts are breaking, who need and want answers and who need to have hope.

ALLEN: You know, people waited throughout the day yesterday at a reunification center, waiting for information about their friends and family members. You know, that information was really slow and hard to come by.

MARTIN: Have officials been able to tell families what may have caused the collapse?

ALLEN: Well, they say it's too soon to say. Miami-Dade Police Department is going to be conducting a full investigation, but that won't start until search and rescue is over. The building, though, is 40 years old. It was undergoing inspection, which is required for buildings of this age. And that's required because there are concerns that salt water can corrode aging concrete buildings. One of those who got out safely yesterday was Ann Citron. She told member station WLRN she was staying in the building next door to Champlain Towers.

ANN CITRON: There was a huge rumble and then another bigger rumble. And then we go to the staircase, and there's all this dust in the staircase. And you go outside - and fire trucks pulling up. And there's people outside and people saying they were trapped.

MARTIN: A lot of the building's residents, I understand, those who are missing - many of them are from Latin America originally. What can you tell us about who lived there?

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, Surfside is a quiet beach town. And it's long been known for its large Jewish community there. Many of that community lived in the Champlain Towers. But we're starting to hear the names, pictures of missing people that families are waiting to hear about. And along with these long-term residents, there were also many visitors staying there temporarily, you know, for a beach vacation. You had people from Venezuela and Argentina there, both reported by their governments. Also at the condo, there was the sister of Paraguay's first lady and her family and a friend. They're also among the missing.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us right now about the search and rescue operations?

ALLEN: Well, the operation is continuing, went through the night, will continue all day today. Miami-Dade is well-known for its urban search and rescue team. They travel around the world, responding to disasters like this one. And there have been successful rescues, you know, days after disaster in places like Mexico and Haiti. We've seen those happen. Crews have been working, concentrating efforts in the building's parking garage down underground, tunneling into the debris pile in the search for survivors. But Miami-Dade County Assistant Fire Rescue Chief Ray Jadallah says it has to be a slow, painstaking process.

RAY JADALLAH: Every time we make a breach underneath the ground, we do have some debris that rains down on the firefighters. And again, what we encountered was some shifting of the debris. And eventually, we did have a small fire, which was extinguished within 20 minutes.

ALLEN: You know, they use dogs and listening devices. And so far, they've heard some sounds but no voices.

MARTIN: And just real quick, earlier this morning, President Biden declared an emergency in Florida. What difference will this make?

ALLEN: Well, it means that there'll be money now to help with the cleanup and the response and also money for the survivors and temporary housing.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Allen reporting from Miami. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.