With more than 150 still missing in condo collapse, ‘we still have hope,’ officials say

State Fire Marshal says rescue workers always ready to ‘respond to the call’

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday morning that rescue officials were still searching for survivors from the condo building collapse in Surfside, saying that a search and rescue mission was ongoing.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday morning that rescue officials were still searching for survivors from the condo building collapse in Surfside, saying that a search and rescue mission was ongoing. There are still 159 people unaccounted for after the partial collapse of the beachside building near Miami, officials said Friday, drastically increasing the number that had previously been reported.

“We will continue search and rescue because we still have hope that we will find people alive,” Levine Cava said.

Levine Cava said teams of rescue workers were having to be pulled off their shifts because they were so motivated to keep working, despite the personal risk to themselves.

RELATED: Families hold on to hope their loved ones will be found safe after condo collapse

State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis became emotional Friday during an interview on The Morning Show as he recounted the sacrifices first responders are willing to make “until the mission is completed.”

“These men and women, whether it be Christmas, or New Year’s or birthdays or anniversaries -- they respond to the call,” Patronis said, fighting back tears. “And that’s what they did at 1:30 in the morning last night. So what I want is to make sure the sacrifice they make doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Raide Jadallah, an assistant Miami-Dade County fire chief, said rescue operations continued throughout the night. He said that 130 firefighters are working at the site.

Jadallah said that while listening devices placed on and in the wreckage had picked up no voices, they had detected possible banging noises, giving rescuers hope some are alive. Rescuers were tunneling into the wreckage from below, going through the building’s underground parking garage.

Patronis said those first responders are singularly focused on saving lives, despite the challenging circumstances.

“The men and women that are working there right now, they can work about 15 minutes, and then they’re past exhaustion. They can’t bring bulldozers in because you take a chance of creating greater debris challenges, so it’s all done via manual labor,” Patronis said. “You can imagine with fires taking place, with heavy equipment, with aircraft overhead, sometimes sounds can be conflicting when you have fires igniting -- that makes thermal imaging challenging. So we bring in dogs, dogs from Jacksonville that ultimately can help and aid these men and women.”

Lt. Pam Ramsdell with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s Search and Rescue and her dog Pixel stopped by The Morning Show on Friday to explain more about what those teams of search dogs and their partners will be doing.

“When you first get on scene, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Obviously, we’ve got a pancake collapse so there’s debris everywhere. We’re going to be looking for a structural engineer to kind of guide us in the right direction make sure that we are going into safe areas, stable areas to a certain degree so that we can move on them,” Ramsdell said. “That’s one reason we use the dogs is because they’re lighter, they’re faster, their noses are incredible. They can find victims and kind of guide us where we need to start digging to help rescue those victims.”

Lieutenant Pam Ramsdell with JFRD Search and Rescue and her dog Pixel join us to walk us through and answer some questions about typical search and rescue efforts.

She said once the dogs are “in the scent” they start circling and barking to alert their handlers who then mark the spot and call in help on their radios.

The 12-story condo building collapsed into rubble early Thursday as much of the Champlain Towers South beach side sheared off for unknown reasons, pancaking into a pile of concrete and metal more than 30 feet high.

Three bodies were pulled from the rubble overnight, bringing the death toll to four, Levine Cava said. Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said they are working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the four victims.

Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.

“These are very difficult times, and things are going to get more difficult as we move forward,” Ramirez said.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami Beach told the Miami Herald he watched as tactical teams of six worked early Friday to sift through the debris. He said he saw one body taken in a yellow body bag and another that was marked. They were taken to a homicide unit tent that was set up along the beach.

Many people remained at the reunification center set up near the collapse site early Friday morning, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.

Officials said no cause for the collapse has been determined.

RELATED: Researcher: High-rise that collapsed was sinking, due for recertification

“That answer isn’t necessarily apparent right now, but it will be identified, and I think that anyone who was affected by this directly wants that answer. But also, we need to know: Is this a bigger issue or is this something unique to the building?” Gov. Ron DeSantis said a news conference Friday in Pensacola.

He also praised the efforts of first responders who arrived “within minutes” and said now it’s an all-out effort from the local, state and federal levels.

“It’s a team effort, all about trying to save lives, all about trying to shepherd the people to safety. And then obviously help these folks get back on their feet because it’s a really traumatic thing, so God bless everybody who’s been participating,” DeSantis said, encouraging everyone who can to support the two organizations set up to help the victims:

Video of the collapse showed the center of the building appearing to tumble down first and a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later, as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.

About half the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, and rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage in the first hours after the collapse.

Television video early Friday showed crews still fighting flareups of fires on the rubble piles. Intermittent rain over South Florida is also hampering the search.

Personal belongings were evidence of shattered lives amid the wreckage of the Champlain, which was built in 1981 in Surfside, a small suburb north of Miami Beach. A children’s bunk bed perched precariously on a top floor, bent but intact and apparently inches from falling into the rubble. A comforter lay on the edge of a lower floor. Televisions. Computers. Chairs.

About the Authors:

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