World news

Florida rescuers stay hopeful about finding more survivors in rubble

Search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, Sunday, June 27, 2021 (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP) 
Terry Spencer and Russ num, Associated Press

Rescue workers digging feverishly for a fifth day have stressed that they could still find survivors in the rubble of a collapsed Florida condo building.

The death toll rose by just four people on Sunday, to a total of nine confirmed dead. But more than 150 people are still missing in Surfside.

Families of the missing rode buses to a site nearby from which they could watch teams at work: firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts employing radar and sonar devices.

US representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at an evening news conference that she had met with some of the rescue workers and was able to “hear the hope that they have”.

She said: “We obviously have some realism that we’re dealing with. But … as long as the experts that we trust are telling me they have hope to find people who might have been able to survive, then we have to make sure that we hold on to that hope.”

Israeli Diaspora Affairs minister Nachman Shai, head of a humanitarian delegation from Israel that includes several search-and-rescue experts, said the professionals have told him of cases where survivors were found after 100 hours or more.

“So don’t lose hope, that’s what I would say,” he said.

Some families had hoped their visit to the site near the 12-storey building would allow them to shout messages to loved ones possibly buried deep inside the pile.

As they returned to a nearby hotel, several paused to embrace as they got off the bus. Others walked slowly with arms around each other back to the hotel entrance.

“We are just waiting for answers. That’s what we want,” said Dianne Ohayon, whose parents, Myriam and Arnie Notkin, were in the building.

“It’s hard to go through these long days and we haven’t gotten any answers yet.”

Authorities on Sunday identified the additional four people that had been recovered as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74; Anna Ortiz, 46; and Luis Bermudez, 26.

The number of people left unaccounted for was 152, said Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava. The last live person rescued was on Thursday, just hours after the collapse.

Miami-Dade assistant fire chief Raide Jadallah explained that conditions at the site — the building pancaked when it fell — have frustrated crews looking for survivors.

Alan Cominsky, chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, said his team is holding out hope of finding someone alive, but must continue to move slowly and methodically.

“The debris field is scattered throughout, and it’s compact, extremely compact,” he said, noting that teams must stabilise and shore up debris as they go.

“We can’t just go in and move things erratically, because that’s going to have the worst outcome possible.”

Ms Levine Cava said six to eight teams are actively searching the pile at any given time, with hundreds of team members on standby ready to rotate in.

She said teams have worked around the clock since Thursday, and there was no lack of personnel.

President Joe Biden said in a statement he spoke with FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell about efforts on the ground after Ms Criswell visited the site.

Mr Biden said his administration is prepared to provide assistance and support, adding: “This is an unimaginably difficult time for the families enduring this tragedy. My heart goes out to every single person suffering during this awful moment.”

Crews spent Saturday night digging a trench that stretches 125 feet long, 20 feet across and 40 feet deep (38 metres long, six metres across and 12 metres deep), which, she said, allowed them to find more bodies and human remains.

Earl Tilton, who runs a search-and-rescue consulting firm in North Carolina, said rushing into the rubble without careful planning and execution would injure or kill rescuers and the people they are trying to save.

He said: “Moving the wrong piece of debris at the wrong time could cause it to fall.”

But Mr Tilton agreed families were not wrong to continue holding out hope. During past urban rescues, he said, rescuers have found survivors as long as a week past the initial catastrophe.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

World news