SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP/WJW) — A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person and trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled out dozens of survivors and continued to look for more.
Nearly 100 people were still unaccounted for at midday, authorities said, raising fears that the death toll could climb sharply. But officials did not know how many were in the tower when it fell around 1:30 a.m.
A family reunification center is open for anyone looking for missing relatives, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
“The building is literally pancaked,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”
Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.
Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage, but it was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who toured the scene, said television did not capture the scale of what happened.
Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.
Teams of 10 to 12 rescuers were entering the rubble at a time with dogs and other equipment, working until they tire from the heavy lifting, then making way for a new team, said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, the state’s fire marshal.
“They’re not going to stop just because of nightfall,” Patronis told Miami television station WPLG. “They just may have a different path they pursue.”
Authorities did not say what may have caused the collapse. On video footage captured from nearby, the center of the building appeared to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.
Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have been the cause.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she got a call from President Joe Biden, who offered federal aid. Hotels opened to some of the displaced residents, she said, and deliveries of food, medicine and more were being hastily arranged. Rescue officials tried to determine how many people might be missing and asked residents to check in with them.
About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.
The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs inside. Air conditioners hung from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.
Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris. As crews went through the rubble around midday, smoke wafted through the area. The source was not clear.
Barry Cohen, 63, and his wife were sound asleep in their beachside condominium when he heard what he thought was a crack of thunder early Thursday. They got up, opened the door leading to their hallway and faced a pile of rubble and billowing smoke.
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, 63, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
The couple survived the collapse of Champlain Towers South Condo, just yards from the Atlantic surf, but at least one person was killed and rescuers were still combing the building’s rubble for others.
Rescuers pulled dozens of survivors from the tower during the morning and continued to look for more.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.
Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, said that 51 people who were thought to be in the building at the time of the collapse were unaccounted for by mid-morning — but there was a possibility that some weren’t at home.
Trying to get out after the collapse, Cohen said he and his wife tried to take stairs down to the pool area, only to find that door wouldn’t open. They descended to the basement and found rising water there.
The couple returned upstairs, screaming for help. There were eventually brought to safety on a cherry-picker that firefighters used to lower people to the ground, he said.
“I thank them,” Cohen said. “They had such a hard job. It’s amazing what they do. I’m always happy to be alive, but I’m even happier today.”
Nicholas Balboa, a bystander, described the scene as 9/11. He found a little boy trapped in the rubble of the collapse and stayed with him until he was able to get help.
“As we were communicating and letting him know that we were there, he was yelling ‘please don’t leave me.’ So we tried to stay with him and then I used my phone to flash the light and the backside of my phone to signal fire and rescue to come over. So we got a police officer to come over. He climbed up and he radioed over to fire to get them to come over and to help get him out,” he said.
He said the scene was shocking.
“For me, it was the images of 9/11,” he said. “Me, being the age that I was then, that was the first thing that came to mind. Seeing the destruction and everything. That’s the first thing, that we had a mini 9/11 situation.”
At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor. When a news conference about the collapse appeared on the TV, the room went silent.
Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.
“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”
Nicolas Fernandez waited early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones.”
Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law’s vacant condo on Wednesday but didn’t, only to awake to news of the collapse.
“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”