Biden meets with families, first responders in Surfside condo collapse as dangerous conditions stall search

By: - July 1, 2021 3:39 pm

President Joe Biden meets with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava on July 1, 2021, in Miami to discuss the Surfside condo disaster. Credit: Screenshot

President Joe Biden arrived in South Florida Thursday to console family members still awaiting word about 145 people still believed buried under the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building, which collapsed during early hours precisely one week ago.

Mere hours before before Air Force One, bearing the president, First Lady Jill Biden, and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, touched down at Miami International Airport, local officials had been forced to halt search and rescue operations because “the pile” had become too unstable for them to to continue.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference.

During a meeting with state and local officials organizing the response, Biden appeared to offer to pay all costs of the search and rescue operation for the first 30 days, according to a pool report. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott also attended the gathering at an area hotel.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Biden said, urging those at the table to “tell me what you need.”

The president later met privately with family members at the hotel. In remarks to reporters before heading back to Washington, Biden — who has suffered deaths of his first wife, young daughter, and later his adult son, Bo Biden — appeared deeply moved by these conversations.

“They’re praying and pleading that God, let there be a miracle. Let there be something happen for me that’s good. Because I have, like many of you do, some idea what it’s like to suffer that kind of loss that so many of them are suffering,” Biden said.

“Our message today is that we’re here for you as one nation. As one nation. And that’s the message we communicated. We’ll be in touch with a lot of these families continuing through this process. But there’s much more to be done. We’re ready to do it,” he said.

The president also remarked upon the high level of bipartisan cooperation in the response.

“There’s no disagreement, no bickering. Everybody’s on the same team. It’s what America’s all about. It’s about pulling together, leaving nobody behind. The one thing that made me feel good about this is the cohesion that exists. There’s no Democrat or Republican out there. There are just people wanting to do the right thing for their fellow Americans.”

Asked whether families had hope of finding loved ones alive, he said the families “are realistic,” and have seen the crush of concrete and debris at the condo site. “They know that the chances as the days go by diminish slightly,” he said.

During that family meeting, Biden made brief remarks then circulated among tables holding private conversations, as did the first lady, governor, and other elected officials, according to the pool report. The president stayed until everyone had a chance to talk with him.

The death count remained at 18, including two children, with 145 people unaccounted for, Cava said.

On their way to the airport, the presidential party stopped near the disaster site where a “Surfside Wall of Hope and Memorial,” covered in photos and homemade signs and with flowers bunched against it, honors the victims and missing, according to the pool report.

Jill Biden carried a bouquet of white irises, which she laid on the curb. They stood there holding hands briefly, the president’s head bowed, until he crossed himself before they returned to the limousine.

The White House had expressed concern about letting his visit interfere with search and recovery operations. But conditions at the site had already done that.

“I want to stress that President Biden’s visit today will have no impact on what happens at the site. The search and rescue operations will continue as soon as it is safe to do so. The only reason for this pause is concerns about the standing structure,” Cava said during the morning.

Fire and Rescue chief Alan Cominsky timed the stop-work order at 2:11 a.m. He cited “six to 12 inches of movement in a large column hanging from the structure that could fall and cause damage” to another support column.

Additionally, he noted “slight movement” in a concrete floor slab and “movement in the debris pile.”

“We have already informed the families this morning, who are waiting and waiting, about this development, and we have worked to answer all the questions that they have about the operation,” Cava said.

State engineers were helping to map a path toward resumption of work, DeSantis said.

“Obviously, we believe that continuing searching is something that’s very, very important,” he said. “We’re going to provide whatever resources they need to be able to allow the searches to continue.”

During a meeting at the hotel with about 50 first responders, Biden spoke softly, according to the pool report.

“What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with, even psychologically, to deal with. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Biden said.

“As you all know, it’s not only what you’re dealing with now, but your brothers and sisters across this country are having more pressure put on them because of the drought [in the West], more pressure because of, we have 121 degree heat up in Vancouver, you know you got a problem,” he continued.

“Until we need you, no one fully appreciates what you do. But I promise you — we know. We know. What you’re doing here is incredible, having to deal with the uncertainty, and worrying about the families.”

During the earlier meeting, DeSantis — usually a harsh critic of the president — shared some praise.

“You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive,” the governor said.

“We’ve had no bureaucracy,” DeSantis said, in securing federal aid. “We thank you for the support … What we just need now is a little bit of luck, a little bit of prayer … we’re not going to stop until we identify everybody.”

Cava thanked the president for coming and for the swift federal response, calling it “an incredible collaboration.”

Meanwhile, state officials were monitoring Tropical Storm Elsa, which has formed in the Atlantic Ocean and was headed toward the Caribbean Thursday. South Florida might feel its effects by Monday, DeSantis said.

The Florida Department of Transportation has removed nearly 14,000 tons of debris from the site, the governor said.

In a poignant moment, Cominsky described how when first responders conducted their initial search underneath the structure they heard “audible sounds.”

“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard, for several hours. Eventually, we didn’t hear a voice anymore. We continued searching,” he said.

“That’s emphasizing the magnitude of what we’re going through. You know, the efforts that all our fire and rescue personnel, everyone that’s here on scene, trying to do the best we can in this heroic effort. And yes, unfortunately, we didn’t have success with that,” he said.

Note: This story has been updated to include the president’s remarks to reporters.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.