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99 people unaccounted for in Florida condo tower collapse

Part of the 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo, with more than 100 units at 8777 Collins Ave., collapsed around 2 a.m. on June 24, 2021. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

A total of 99 people remain unaccounted for in the overnight collapse of a condo tower near Miami Beach, authorities said.

It’s unknown how many of these people represent possible fatalities and how many might not have been in the building at the time.

Rubble hangs from a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, on June 24, 2021. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Miami-Dade Commissioner Pepe Diaz confirmed the 99 figure, which was also given to media outlets by Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez.

The missing include at least 34 Jewish people, in a part of the Miami coast that’s within walking distance of five synagogues. It includes nine Argentines, according to a news release from the Argentine Consulate in Miami. It includes six citizens of Paraguay, including siblings of that country’s first lady, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Paraguay.

A portion of the 12-story condo tower crumbled to the ground during a partially collapse of the building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Anxious family members crowded into a community center near the collapsed condo tower in the town of Surfside on Thursday afternoon, as rescue efforts continued. But authorities cautioned that the official death toll of one was likely to climb. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who arrived on the scene, said rescuers continued to search for survivors.

“I know they have made contact with some, and they are doing everything they can to save lives,” he said. “And that is ongoing, and they are not going to rest.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media about the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building that partially collapsed on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

“We just toured around the complex to be able to see, and the TV doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “I mean it is really, really traumatic to see the collapse of a massive structure like that.”

Rescuers with search dogs picked through the rubble, their work hampered by stormy weather and a fire that broke out in the intact part of the building. As they worked, family members gathered at the Surfside Community Center, where they were organized by the floor on which their relatives lived.

Rubble piled high after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

“We’re just trying to find my cousin,” said Hildelisa Gonzalez, clutching a photo of her cousin Edgar, as she walked into the community center. “We know they recovered his daughter and his wife. But we have no word on him. Their floor got hit hard.”

The tower at 8777 Collins Ave. collapsed around 1:30 a.m. A surveillance video showed the building falling to the ground in seconds, with the center going down first and the side sagging on top of it, sending up huge clouds of dust.

“I could hear somebody yelling, screaming,” Nicholas Balboa told CNN. “I could hear by his voice it was a little boy. I saw an arm sticking out of the wreckage.” He and the other person tried to climb up, but it was “too heavy” with too much rebar.

He said the boy was screaming, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

Balboa called over police, who climbed up using flashlight from Balboa’s cellphone and confirmed the boy was buried, and got firefighters over to pull him out.

Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald that emergency workers believe they have cleared all survivors from inside the tower, which has more than 130 apartments. He said more than 70 apartments have been destroyed or damaged.

“Everyone who is alive is out of the building,” he said.

While the search continued for survivors, there’s been speculation on the reason for the collapse.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said roof work was taking place at the building but that he doubted that could have caused the disaster.

“Well, what we know is they were doing roof work on the building at the time,” he said, according to WSVN-TV. “Certainly, that doesn’t seem like it would be the issue that would have caused it. Some of the residents at the community center have complained to me that the new building that went up to the south used to shake the building when they were putting the pilings in, but I think that we need to look very hard at what happened there and find out because buildings just don’t fall down like this.”

Rescue workers with ladder trucks and search dogs have been going through the rubble for survivors.

They had to amputate one woman’s leg to get her out, Rollason told the Miami Herald.

“The first responders were able to save a lot of people,” DeSantis said. “They are going to be going through more. It’s a really, really tragic situation. We’ll hope for the best in terms of additional recoveries, but we are bracing for some bad news just given the destruction that we’re seeing.”

President Joe Biden called Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “He offered the full support of the federal government to help our community during this difficult time,” she said in a tweet.

A hotline to report missing family members has been set up at (305) 614-1819.

Surfside Mayor Burkett said the building manager told him the building was substantially full.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said at a news conference. “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.”

Chani Lipskar, wife of the rabbi at the Shul of Bal Harbour, said thousands of people “across the globe” were reciting prayers for the 34 Jewish people missing, as well as everyone else unaccounted for.

Her synagogue brought chocolate milk and sandwiches to the Surfside Community Center, where families were waiting for news of their loved ones.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said 55 units were in the collapsed portion of the building. They pulled 35 people from building, 10 were treated at the scene and two were hospitalized.

“We were sound asleep and we heard a weird noise that woke us up in the middle of the night,” said Ofi Osin-Cohen, who lives on the third floor. “It could have been thunder but it didn’t quite seem like thunder. And I said what is going on? Is it raining? We looked outside and I saw a plume of smoke coming up.”

“And I said to my husband, ‘Grab a few things, your wallet, your phone, your charger, we gotta get out of here.’”

They opened the door of their apartment and saw the hallway blocked by debris. They went down a different hallway and found an exit door that wouldn’t open. The garage level was filled with water.

“There were two elderly people there that we took with us and said, ‘Let’s go back to our apartment. We can go on the balcony. They’ll rescue us from the balcony.’ We live on the third floor. We lived on the third floor. So we did that. We let fire rescue know the building was not passable, we needed to get out and we needed them to rescue us.”

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(Staff writers Susannah Bryan, Lisa J. Huriash and Anthony Man and photographer Susan Stocker contributed to this report.)

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