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99 still missing after South Florida condo collapse

Search and rescue efforts ongoing at beachfront high-rise in Surfside

A fire official says 35 people escaped a Miami-area condominium building that partially collapsed early about 1:40 a.m. Thursday, killing at least one and injuring others.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – A fire official says 35 people escaped a Miami-area condominium building that partially collapsed early about 1:40 a.m. Thursday, killing at least one and injuring others.

By late afternoon, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said 102 people were accounted for but 99 were not of late afternoon. Those numbers did not fluctuate when officials gave an 8 p.m. news briefing.

Raide Jadallah, assistant fire chief of operations for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said search and rescue efforts are ongoing.

“We shifted operations from inside the building to underneath the rubble,” Jadallah said. “There’s a parking garage underneath the building that’s giving us better access to gain tunnel ways to these different floors. The operations will continue throughout the night. Any opportunity for any viable victims that we can find, we will locate.”

Dramatic video from before dawn showed firefighters rescuing a 10-year-old boy that good Samaritans found trapped in the debris.

“I saw an arm sticking out of the wreckage and he was screaming, ‘Can you see me?’ So we started to kind of climb up to him, to try and see if we could get him free. But there was -- it was too heavy, too much rebar and stuff like that,” said Nicholas Balboa who assisted in the rescue. “He was screaming, ‘Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

The boy was awake and alert as firefighters carried him out of the building.

This photo taken from video provided by ReliableNewsMedia firefighters rescue a survivor from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South Condo after the multistory building partially collapsed in Surfside, Fla.

Late Thursday, the Miami-Dade’s Urban Search Team with K9s and other resources changed their focus from inside what’s left of the building to underneath the rubble through and access from an underground parking garage.

After getting a glimpse of the damage at the Champlain Towers complex as search-and-rescue efforts remained underway, DeSantis told reporters the state is working with local rescue workers and the Red Cross to assist survivors for short- and long-term needs.

“They are still hard at work, and we still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors,” DeSantis said.

Local, state and national leaders ask people to be patient, let the rescuers do their job and pray for everyone involved.

DeSantis said it would take some time to determine why the building collapsed.

“I know that they are going to have engineers looking at this to try to identify what happened ... probably not going to have those answers immediately. But I know that they are diligently going to be working to be able to do that,” DeSantis said.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned during a news conference that the building manager told him the tower was 80% full and the death toll was likely to rise.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “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.”

VIDEO: A fire official says 35 people escaped a Miami-area condominium building that partially collapsed, killing at least one and injuring others.

Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have caused the collapse. Authorities did not say what the cause may be.

“It’s less likely than a lightning strike,” Burkett said. “You just don’t see buildings falling down in America.”

Residents who were inside the 12 story building at the time describe the roar and pure chaos and how they escaped through darkness and dust.

“I looked down the hallway, and it’s a very long hallway -- probably 100 yards, 75 yards -- and there was nothing there. It was just a pile of dust and rubble and paint falling from the ceilings,” Barry Cohen said.

A small fire broke out at the scene Thursday afternoon, but firefighters appeared to be getting it under control shortly before 2 p.m.

The collapse left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside. Air conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” the mayor said.

Fiorella Terenzi lives one building away from the south tower and was one of the first to see the aftermath of the collapse.

“I was sleeping, I heard the very loud sound that really sounded like thunder,” Terenzi said. “I was waiting for the lighting but the sound was a little bit too metallic was a strange sound.”

Terenzi said she ran outside and captured some photos, shocked to see the building she spent 20 years seeing outside her apartment building reduced to a massive pile of rubble.

“Every morning I wave ‘hi’ to the person doing yoga on the balcony, to the elderly woman with a walker on the balcony,” Terenzi said. “Not that I know them personally very well, I do meet them, I’ve been here 20 years.”

A friend of Terenzi’s, who did not want to be identified, sent News4Jax a photo from inside his hallway as he tried to escape the portion of the building that was still standing after the collapse. The end of the hallway was blocked by debris, however, Terenzi’s friend was eventually rescued by first responders via his balcony.

Terenzi said she’s worried about her friends in the structure, hoping they’re safe.

“That is exactly the picture that is imprinted in my mind,” Terenzi said. “Early morning walk, around eight o’clock, you see the people I’ve known for 20 years, putting the chair outside on the balcony, the cup of coffee, the Yoga, the elderly woman with a helper and the walker. That is the image -- and that’s what I’m waiting for; to understand. Where are my friends?”

Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”

“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”

He and his wife eventually made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.

Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

Santo Mejil, 50, told the Miami Herald that his wife called him from the building, where she was working as an aide for an elderly woman.

“She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake,” Mejil told the newspaper. He said she later called him and said rescuers were bringing her down.

Miami Dade Fire Rescue was conducting search and rescue operations, and said in a tweet that more than 80 units were “on scene with assistance from municipal fire departments.”

Police blocked nearby roads, and scores of fire and rescue vehicles, ambulances and police cars swarmed the area. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

“We’re on the scene so it’s still very active,” said Sgt. Marian Cruz of the Surfside Police Department. “What I can tell you is the building is 12 floors. The entire back side of the building has collapsed.”

The collapse appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower. Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.

The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000.

The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The community provides a stark contrast from bustle and glitz of nearby South Beach with a slower-paced neighborhood feel.

Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale and Ian Mader in Miami contributed to this report.


About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.