Crews halted their search for survivors of the Champlain Towers South collapse early Thursday morning out of concern that the rest of the building could also fall, a setback to an increasingly desperate rescue effort that for days has proceeded slowly and without hopeful news.
The pause of the search, which came a week after the condominium tower partially collapsed and just hours before President Biden’s visit to the area, further imperiled the chances of finding any survivors in the rubble. Eighteen people are known to have died in the collapse in Surfside, Fla., and as many as 145 people remain missing, numbers that have remained unchanged since Wednesday.
“They’re working in a very, very unsafe environment,” said Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, who described a large hanging column that threatened to destabilize the remaining structure, as well as movement in concrete slabs and the debris pile, that prompted the pause to rescue work. “I couldn’t pinpoint it to one specific incident.”
The northeast portion of the building, facing the beach, fell to the ground, while other units were left standing. But after days of intensive searches, the scene appeared quiet on Thursday, with cranes frozen above the rubble.
“It’s a little heartbreaking, a little overwhelming,” said Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, were among the missing. “I understand — I’ve seen the site. I understand how horrific the destruction is, but at the same time, my mother and grandmother are underneath all of that.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said state engineers had been sent to help devise a plan to safely resume the search. Adding to the urgency, the state is also bracing for possible impacts from Tropical Storm Elsa in the coming days. Additional search and rescue crews were traveling to Surfside on Thursday, Mr. Biden said.
“Obviously, we believe that continuing searching is something that’s very, very important,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We’re going to provide whatever resources they need to be able to allow the searches to continue.”
Chief Cominsky said he remained hopeful that the search would resume, though he declined to say when that might happen.
“I don’t have a time frame,” he said. “Right now, our primary focus, obviously, is rescuing our victims as well as protecting our fire personnel.”
Even before the pause, the search had progressed slowly. The bodies of two sisters, ages 4 and 10, were pulled from the rubble on Wednesday as the known death toll rose to 18. Lucia Guara, 10, and her sister, Emma Guara, 4, were among four victims identified by the authorities on Wednesday evening, along with their mother, Anaely Rodriguez, 42. Rescue workers also found the body of Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21.
“Any loss of life, especially given the unexpected, unprecedented nature of this event is a tragedy,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County, visibly emotional, said at a Wednesday news conference. “But the loss of our children is too great to bear.”