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Death toll in condo collapse reaches 9 as search continues

Surfside, Florida, apartment collapse (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/Released)

Four more bodies were recovered from the rubble in Surfside, as rescue work continued Sunday in the diminishing hope of finding more survivors of the collapsed condo tower.

More than 150 people remained missing, although it’s possible not all of them were in the building when it fell. Barring a miracle, it’s clear the disaster will rank with the worst in Florida history, with a death toll that could be more than triple that of Hurricane Andrew.

The four additional bodies bring the official death toll to nine. They were found after rescue workers labored overnight to dig a 125-foot trench through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South tower. Despite the lack of success in the past two days, they’re still searching for signs of life.

“Any void, any crevice that the team sees, that’s where they search through,” Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said. “Any that shows positive potential — any little bit of potential — the crews aggressively head in that area.”

Despite the hard work of the rescue crews, hopes faded Sunday and many turned to mourning. Family members of the victims boarded two buses Sunday afternoon for a visit to the site, in what Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava described as “a very private event.”

At Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Miami Beach, Father Juan Sosa read the names of missing parishioners.

Here are the names, from a list provided by the Archdiocese: Gonzalo and María Torres, Apt. 912; Magaly Delgado, Apt. 911; Raymond and Mercedes Urgelles, Apt. 211; Hilda Noriega and a companion, Apt. 602; Julio and Angela Velasquez, Apt. 304; Juan and Ana Mora and their son, Apt. 1011; Graciela Cattarossi and family, Apt. 501; and Marcus and Anaely Guara and their two daughters, Apt. 802. Three parishioners were among the 35 rescued.

Levine Cava announced at a news conference that rescue crews recovered four more bodies since Saturday. Of the nine victims, one dead at the hospital and the others were found dead at the site. Four of the nine victims have been identified, she said, and authorities are still trying to identify the others.

Despite the somber news from the site, Former Surfside Mayor Paul Novack said family members retain hope that loved ones may still be alive.

“I just left the families,” he said Sunday afternoon. “It’s very difficult. We’re not going to give up hope. We have heard of people in other parts of the world being found even days later. So, we are going to hold onto our hope and keep working strenuously 24-7.”

Among the missing are his friends, he said.

“A couple of nice friends, an elderly couple,” Novack said. “Most people in the community do know someone in the building. It’s hard for everyone. Everyone is doing the very best they can.”

Meanwhile, questions arose over a 2018 consultant’s report that warned of “major structural damage” at the base of the building.

An underground fire from the gasoline of crushed cars was brought under control, she said, allowing rescuers to more easily make their way through the broken concrete, twisted steel and smashed furniture.

Miami-Dade Police have identified four of the dead: Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83; Glady Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54.

New revelations have emerged about the building’s developer, Nathan Reiber, a Canadian citizen who built the condo in 1981. Reiber, who died in 2014, pleaded guilty in Canada in the 1970s to tax evasion for skimming thousands of dollars from coin-operated laundries and issuing $120,000 in checks for phony construction work to cover-up the tax cheating, The Washington Post reported.

The late developer’s activities are significant because questions have arisen about the quality of the construction. A 2018 engineering consultant’s report identifying a “major error” in placing waterproofing on a flat rather than sloped surface, allowing the pooling of water.

As the search for survivors entered its fourth day Sunday, rescuers in heavy protective gear used cranes, sonar, cameras and search dogs to look for signs of life. Family members have submitted DNA samples to allow for the identification of human remains.

Levine Cava said Saturday the rescue work would proceed, insisting there was still hope.

“We are continuing our search and rescues because our first responders believe there’s still a possibility,” she said. “There are crevices, so there is air. They’re able to pick through. But right now obviously we’re trying to stabilize the situation because of the fire and the smoke.”

At a 7 p.m. Saturday news conference, Levine Cava announced that the death toll had begun to climb.

She said rescuers “found another body in the rubble” as well as “some human remains.”

When a body is found, homicide detectives photograph, collect and send the remains to the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office, police director Alfredo Ramirez said.

Officials have said some of the 130 people still unaccounted for may not have been in the building.

“You wake up in the morning hoping that more and more people have been pulled out,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Saturday at the scene. “And that news hasn’t been what we had hoped.”

Although the focus remains on the rescue, at least two lawsuits have already been filed and questions have grown about how a concrete and steel high-rise could suddenly cave in.

A 2018 report to the condo association by Morabito Consultants said “failed waterproofing” below the pool deck and entrance drive at Champlain Towers South had led to significant deterioration of the concrete. Replacing the waterproofing would be “extremely expensive,” the report stated, because it would require removal of the concrete slab above it.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report, which was signed by Frank Morabito, the company’s president.

The report was posted on the Town of Surfside’s website, along with inspection reports and other documents about the collapsed building. It’s unclear whether the damage identified in the report was addressed by the condo association or whether it had anything to do with the building’s collapse, a disaster that experts say will require extensive investigation and may involve multiple causes.

The report identified a “major error” in the building’s construction in 1981 that left it open to water damage. The concrete slab beneath the pool and entrance drive was not sloped, which allowed water to pool on top of it until it evaporated.

Permits posted on the town’s website gave no indication that any work was done to address these defects.

Morabito Consultants issued a statement Saturday offering prayers and saying the firm was “deeply troubled by this building collapse.”

After completing the 2018 report, the firm was hired in June 2020 to create plans for the repairs, which would be done by another company.

“At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were underway, but concrete restoration had not yet begun,” the statement said.

At a Saturday morning news conference, Levine Cava said the county wasn’t aware of the warning in the engineer’s report.

“We are obviously very interested in all of the evidence that’s coming to light and we’re going to be including it in what happens after the rescue,” she said. “In the meantime, we’re taking actions to make sure other buildings are safe.”

Miami-Dade County will conduct an “audit of all buildings at the 40-year point and beyond” over the next 30 days, she said.

Burkett said he was working on a plan to temporarily relocate residents of Champlain Towers North, the collapsed tower’s “sister building,” which was constructed in the same year and remains standing next to the ruins.

The mayor said north tower residents have an “option to relocate.”

He said he didn’t plan to order residents to evacuate, but if he lived there, “I’d be gone.”

A cursory check of the north building shows it appears stable, Burkett said. He said a “deeper dive” into the north tower’s safety is proceeding and will take a few weeks to complete.

Pope Francis sent a message of consolation Saturday through an envoy to Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

“The Holy Father has asked me to express his deep sadness at the grievous loss of life resulting from the condominium collapse in Surfside,” the message said. “He offers heartfelt prayers that Almighty God will grant eternal peace to those who have died, comfort to those who mourn their loss, and strength to all those affected by this immense tragedy.”

A second lawsuit was filed Saturday, this one on behalf of Steve Rosenthal, who lived on the seventh floor and was rescued after the collapse. The lawsuit cited the 2018 engineer’s report and what it said were other warnings that the association failed to address.

The complaint stated the association knew or should have known “the entire structure was deteriorating and becoming susceptible to catastrophic loss by collapse.”

Condo association lawyer Donna DiMaggio Berger told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the Champlain Towers South condo was undergoing roof work at the time of its partial collapse after an engineer who conducted its 40-year inspection made it a priority because the 2021 hurricane season had begun.

“The roof was the first because we’re in a hurricane season,” DiMaggio Berger said. “If the roof flies off, we’re not having a building.”

Berger said a preliminary report from the building’s inspection had been compiled by the engineer and submitted to the town of Surfside, which had not indicated that any additional testing was needed.

There is no indication that the roof work had anything to do with the collapse, DiMaggio Berger said.

She denounced a lawsuit filed Thursday against the association by attorney Brad Sohn on behalf of Manuel Drezner, owner of a 10th-floor condo, who was not in the building at the time. She called the lawsuit “despicable,” saying the association’s vice president was still missing and the president narrowly escaped the building alive.

“So Mr. Brad Sohn has managed to figure out what’s going on — even though FEMA doesn’t know and the county doesn’t know?” she said. “But he has somehow figured this out?”

Several groups have set up websites to raise funds for the victims. Among them are and


(Staff writers Alex DeLuca, Brittany Wallman and Arlene Borenstein-Zuluaga contributed to this report.)

©2021 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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