Surfside death toll reaches 20, including 7-year-old daughter of firefighter; Hurricane Elsa spins

By: - July 2, 2021 2:37 pm

Rescue workers at the remains of the Champlain Towers South condominium building. Credit: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department

Search and rescue workers recovered two more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Tower South in Surfside, including the 7-year-old daughter of a city of Miami firefighter, after work resumed at the site following a hiatus forced by safety fears.

That brought the number of dead to 20, Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference on Friday. Officials now have accounted for 188 people believed to have been inside when the structure collapsed early on June 24, with 128 as yet unaccounted for, she said.

Officials did not identify the father or his daughter or the circumstances of her presence in the building when it fell but said he hadn’t been working on the site when colleagues recovered the body.

“Our chief is asking that all of you respect the privacy of the immediate family as well as our fire department, which is understandably grieving tremendously,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told reporters.

“I’m the father of two children and I have a 7-year-old son. And the thought of losing him in this way is unimaginable for me and my family. This tragedy has haunted so many of us, because so many of us know someone who has been in the building or affected by this tragedy. So, now, not only do we know someone, this is someone who’s a member of our family, of our fire family,” he said.

“Every victim we remove, it’s difficult. Very difficult,” Miami Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said.

Out of respect, “we have a whole process in regards to how we remove each individual that we come across. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to remove any survivors yet. But it’s very difficult. Last night was even more, your know — removing a fellow firefighter’s daughter,” he said.

Officials halted search and rescue work on Thursday morning after “the pile” became unstable. Engineers were surveyed the situation and gave the go-ahead to resume work at around 5 p.m. Thursday.

Friday marked the 9th day of the search.

As if they need another problem, officials were keeping an eye on Elsa, the tropical system that now has developed into a hurricane. It was tracking through the Caribbean on Friday.

“Our Department of Emergency Management is assuming that that will happen and making the necessary preparations to be able, obviously, to protect a lot of the equipment. You could potentially have an event with the building, as well,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

His aides were drafting an emergency order to help state and local workers to respond to the storm, he said.

“We’ll monitor and we’ll have to see the direction of the storm and how close it gets and then we’ll have to take the necessary precautions,” Cominsky said.

Elsa could get “pretty close” to Florida on Monday or Tuesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda said, but tropical storm-force winds could arrive as early as Sunday. There remains “a lot of uncertainty” about how the storm will develop, he said.

Officials have refused to give up hope of finding survivors, but have begun to look ahead to demolition of the section of the 12-story structure that’s still standing, lest it collapse on rescue workers. Engineers have begun planning but Cava warned the process would take time.

“It is important to stress,” she said, “that a demolition cannot be done overnight. In fact, it takes weeks to demolish a building.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said engineers are preparing X-ray equipment to evaluate the soundness of Champlain Towers North, which stands nearby and was built by the same developer as Champlain South.

He’s been getting a lot of questions about pets that might be trapped inside the rubble at Champlain South, but that the teams have been using drones to scope out voids and they haven’t seen any.

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.