Building that collapsed deemed in ‘very good shape’ by town official in 2018; 11 dead, 150 still missing – USA TODAY

SURFSIDE, Fla. – As rescuers sifted through the debris of a collapsed Florida condo building Monday in desperate hope of finding survivors, questions about what brought the structure down only intensified.

The death toll from the collapse rose to 11 after first responders pulled two bodies from the site Monday, said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who updated the number of fatalities from 10 at an afternoon news conference. Four victims were taken out of the Champlain Towers South rubble Sunday. Levine Cava said 150 people remain unaccounted for. 

Amid the shock and grief caused by the catastrophe, some hints about its possible origin are starting to emerge.

An April letter from the building’s condo association president said damage to the basement garage had “gotten significantly worse” since an inspection less than three years ago, and that deterioration of the building’s concrete was “accelerating.” The letter, obtained by USA TODAY, also said the estimated cost for the repair had increased from $9 million to more than $15 million.

An October 2018 report following the inspection by the engineering firm Morabito Consultants had warned of major structural problems at the Surfside high-rise, but a month later a town building official told board members the structure was in “very good shape,” according to minutes of that meeting released Monday.

The Surfside official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, was quoted as making those comments at a meeting of the condo board on Nov. 15, 2018.

Over the weekend, officials in Surfside published scores of documents to the town’s website, including those from Morabito alerting to “major structural damage” and the potential for “exponential damage.”

The discussion with Prieto, who no longer works at Surfside and could not be reached for comment Monday, came as Champlain Towers was beginning to explore what work was needed under city and county ordinances for the building to meet a 40-year recertification that was to arrive in 2021.

Town officials and fire personnel reasserted in a news conference early Monday that first responders were still in a search-and-rescue operation.

“They’re out there with every resource that they need to ensure that they can search this area,” Levine Cava said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah said crews had identified additional voids in the rubble where residents could be located, but there was no evidence anyone was inside. Crews also were listening to sounds coming from the rubble, but none could be identified as from people, he said.

Jadallah said the decision to transition from search and rescue to recovery cannot be made until crews are confident no one could be alive in any part of the rubble.

“It’s not based on one little section because it was completely destroyed. We have to look at the entire pile,” he said. “We’re just not there yet.”

A section of the Champlain Towers South, built in 1981 just north of Miami Beach, collapsed Thursday. Video shows the center of the wing crumpling before the other end falls.

Building collapse in Miami: Multiple factors could have contributed, experts say

Here’s what we know Monday:

President Biden supports investigation

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden thinks an investigation should be launched into the Champlain Towers South collapse.

During a press briefing Monday, Psaki was asked whether Biden believed the federal government had a role to play in examining infrastructure failures that led to the tragedy.

“He does believe that there should be an investigation,” Psaki replied. “Certainly, we want to play any constructive role we can play with federal resources in getting to the bottom of it and preventing it from happening in the future.”

She said agents from federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, were deployed to Florida to help with these efforts.

Biden has been briefed on the situation by a FEMA administrator, Psaki said.

— Chelsey Cox

Federal agency to conduct extensive probe

The investigation into what caused the Champlain Towers South collapse is already underway, officials said at a Monday afternoon news conference.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he spoke with representatives of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who will be conducting an investigation into the causes of the collapse. The NIST was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has investigated that incident and others such as the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire, the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.

“They have never done just a straight building collapse that wasn’t involved with either hazards or acts of terrorism,” DeSantis said. “This is going to be something that is important and it is something that is going to be very thorough. … It is going to take a long time. That is the kind of horizon they work on.”

DeSantis said more immediate investigations conducted by Miami-Dade County and the town of Surfside could shed some light more quickly and alluded to the possibility of state regulatory changes if necessary following those assessments. 

“If there are things that need to be done at the state level, we obviously would want to get information as soon as possible,” DeSantis said. 

— Jesse Mendoza, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Surfside mayor describes child praying at site

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett on Monday described an interaction he had with a child awaiting news on one of her parents who was inside the building at the time of the collapse.

Burkett said he had seen the 11- or 12-year-old girl at the site before with one of her parents but came across her again Sunday night by herself.

“What she was telling me … she was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site by where one of her parents presumably is. And that really brought it home to me. She wasn’t crying. She was just lost,” he said.

At least 35 Jewish people are among the missing, including some with Israeli citizenship, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, consul general of Israel in Miami, told USA TODAY.

Israeli search and rescue crews were also at the site over the weekend. DeSantis said the Israeli officials who toured the site said the Miami fire crews were following the same protocols the Israeli team would have.

Family members of missing tour collapse site; rescuer falls 25 feet

Family members of the people still unaccounted for were given a private tour of the area Sunday afternoon.

About 100 family members toured the site, which has experienced electrical fires and flooding that have slowed the recovery. Relatives continued their visits on Monday, watching the rescue effort from outside a neighboring building.

Uncertainty about the fate of loved ones drives fear and frustration, and disaster experts say that’s one reason why body identification becomes such a priority. Authorities have been testing the DNA of survivors and family members, assembling a database they can then use to more quickly identify remains. Samples from close relatives are the fastest and easiest to match, experts said.

“The time that it takes is just so painful, and that’s why this matters,” said Julie French, a former DNA scientist with the Michigan state police who now works for the rapid DNA testing company ANDE. “This brings closure to the families that are grieving, as fast as possible.”

During the family tour Sunday, one rescue worker fell 25 feet down the mound of rubble, Jadallah said, underscoring the danger crews are facing.

“We’re talking about pulverized concrete. We’re talking about steel. Every time there is an action, there’s a reaction,” he said. “We’re digging through rubbles of concrete the size of basketballs, the size of baseballs.”

Inspection reports detail ‘major structural damage’ over garage, at least $9M in repairs

Less than three years before the collapse, engineers noted design flaws and failing waterproofing that could lead to “exponential damage,” according to documents released late Friday.

A letter to the condominium association’s treasurer on Oct. 8, 2018, included pages of recommended repairs. One warned of failed waterproofing causing “major structural damage” on a concrete slab over a garage and said, “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete damage to expand exponentially.”

The author warned that the design was faulty, that replacement would be complicated, and that it was a “systemic issue.”

More on Surfside documents: Inspection reports for collapsed Miami-area condo detail ‘major structural damage’ over garage

The documents also indicate that repairs were estimated to reach at least $9 million.

Emails released by Surfside officials also indicated the then-vice president of the condominium association sent the report, which included information about the slab and the damaged concrete, to a town building official as early as Nov. 13, 2018.

The problems outlined in that report could indicate there were other unseen problems, said Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale general contractor and attorney who has handled lawsuits based on construction defects.

“It looks like (inspectors) may not have been able to examine structural elements in other parts of the building,” Schlesinger said. “There were probably similar water problems elsewhere.”

However, more than a dozen experts who spoke with USA TODAY did not reach a consensus on what caused the collapse. Some pointed to sea level rise and the corrosive effect of saltwater brought with encroaching tides. Others wondered about the stability of the ground beneath or matters such as shoddy construction or lax oversight.

Names of the victims of the collapse released

Among those killed in the disaster were Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, a married couple about to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. The couple, both Cuban emigres, had dinner with their son, Sergio Lozano, a few hours before the collapse, he told Miami’s WPLG-TV. If there’s any solace in their deaths, he said, it’s in knowing the two “went together and went quickly.”

Other who were identified are residents Manuel LaFont, 54; Stacie Fang, 54; Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Cristina Beatriz de Oliwkowicz, 74; and Luis Bermudez, 26, and his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46.

The missing: There are still more than 150 people unaccounted for in the building collapse in Miami. Here’s what we know about them.

Fang’s teenage son, Handler, was rescued by a nearby resident, Nicholas Balboa, who was walking his dog near the buildings and heard his screams.

LaFont was asleep when the building fell, his ex-wife, Adriana LaFont, told the USA TODAY Network. The 42-year-old woman said the debris resembled a war zone. “When I saw it, I almost died,” LaFont said in Spanish. “It felt like those walls fell on me, too.” 

Among those missing were many South Americans and members of Surfside’s Jewish community. JetBlue said Sunday that one of its flight attendants was among the missing. A doctor, teacher and yoga instructor were also unaccounted for.

Residents in Champlain Towers North wonder whether building is safe

Just north of Champlain Towers South sits a nearly identical condo building, in which residents have been asking whether their homes are safe, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

Champlain Towers North is “basically the identical building in almost every way to the one that collapsed,” he said. “Built by the same contractor, around the same time, with the same central plans and probably with the same materials.”

The building did not appear to be damaged when the building to the south collapsed, but Burkett said there would be resources available to residents who want to evacuate.

“It’s scary,” said resident Bud Thomas, 55. “I’m hoping that this one doesn’t have the same structural problems as the other one.”

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Kyle Bagenstose, Trevor Hughes, Elinor Aspegren, Erin Mansfield, Aleszu Bajak, Christine Fernando, John Bisognano, Hannah Morse and Romina Ruiz-Goiriena