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Massive search and rescue underway in Florida after condo collapse

By Jason Hanna and Leyla Santiago, CNN

An intense search and rescue effort will continue through the night after part of a 12-story residential building collapsed early Thursday in the South Florida town of Surfside, killing at least one and leaving almost 100 people unaccounted for.

About 55 of the 136 units at Champlain Towers South collapsed around 1:30 a.m., officials said, leaving huge piles of rubble on the ground and materials dangling from what remained of the structure in the beachfront community a few miles north of Miami Beach.

At least 99 people were unaccounted for as of Thursday afternoon, according to Miami-Dade Police spokesperson Alvaro Zabaleta.

At least one person died because of the collapse, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. A total of 102 people have been accounted for, she said.

Two people have been pulled from the rubble, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah said, without addressing their medical conditions.

Rescuers helped pull a boy from the debris alive, a witness said, and video showed responders helping others leave the standing portions of the building, sometimes using a bucket atop a fire truck’s ladder.

State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said Thursday afternoon that emergency workers heard sounds from the rubble earlier. One of the sounds is from an individual in the parking garage area that they are having difficulty getting to, he said.

“It’s kind of hit or miss,” he said. “You get into the zone where you are so passionate and so focused and so determined to make sure you are doing everything possible to save a life in an event like this.”

Besides the two pulled from rubble, 35 others had been helped from standing parts of the building, Jadallah said.

Jadallah told reporters at an afternoon news conference that search and rescue crews were working in a parking garage area underneath the rubble.

He said teams had used search dogs, sonar and cameras on top of the rubble, but the garage has better access to the places they need to start cutting material and conduct other search measures, creating tunnels to reach any trapped people. They couldn’t find any voids in the rubble from the top, he said.

As night approached, however, some helmeted workers could be seen from a CNN affiliate WPLG helicopter on the edge of the rubble, searching the debris and moving stones, wood and mattresses.

Operations will go through the night and fresh crews will come in the morning, Jadallah said.

County Commission Vice Chairman Oliver Gilbert spoke for many with his request at a late afternoon press briefing.

“I have to implore everybody: Just pray.”

Video appears to show building sections come down

Surveillance video obtained by local Fox Sports radio anchor Andy Slater appears to show the collapse: A huge section of the building fell first, followed by another portion about nine seconds later.

A resident on the third floor, Barry Cohen, heard what he thought sounded like an explosion. His apartment was intact, but when he opened his door and tried to leave, he “looked down the hallway … and there was nothing there,” he said.

“It was just a pile of dust, and rubble,” and the building shook as he awaited rescue, Cohen told CNN’s “New Day.”

After about 20 minutes, a rescue crew used a cherry picker to help him, his wife and another resident from a balcony, he said.

Four people were taken to hospitals, and at least seven others were treated at the scene, Jadallah said.

The affected area is predominantly Jewish, and rabbis and chaplains are in the area to assist, Levine Cava said.

Levine Cava said the hotline has been set up for people trying to get information about their loved ones who may have been in the building: 305-614-1819.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency declaration to allow state resources for the disaster response.

Witness finds boy and gets rescuers to him

Witness Nicholas Balboa told CNN he saw a boy’s wiggling fingers sticking out of the debris shortly after the collapse — a discovery that led to the child’s rescue.

Balboa, who lives nearby, said he was walking his dog around 1:30 or 1:40 a.m. when he felt the ground shake and saw plumes of dust and debris. He and another man went to the back of the building. Just as he was doubting anyone could survive the collapse, he heard someone screaming, he said.

“Finally, I got close enough to hear him, and (the trapped boy) said, ‘Can you see my hand?'” Balboa told CNN’s “New Day.”

“He was sticking his hand up … through the debris. And I could see his hand and his fingers wiggling.”

Balboa and the other man got a police officer to come over, and other rescuers eventually arrived, Balboa said.

The boy, who was under a mattress and bed frame when he was found, was pulled out, he said.

Video captured by ReliableNewsMedia shows rescuers helping a survivor out of the rubble — it was not immediately clear if this was the boy that Balboa described.

A rescuer reached an arm under what looked like a collapsed wall, its reinforcing metal bars now pointing skyward, to help the survivor, who was wearing a dark shirt and pajama pants.

The survivor slowly leaned over, laying their body over a rescuer’s right shoulder and draping their legs over the bigger person’s chest, the ReliableNewsMedia video shows. Then, the survivor was lowered onto a white stretcher and helped the rescue team secure orange straps. The team carried the person away.

Shortly after that, at least six stories up, a trio of survivors and what looked like a dog climbed from a balcony into the bucket atop a fire truck’s elevated ladder. The bucket then slowly descended.

‘We just see a cloud of dust coming our way’

Shmuel Balkany was on a walk with his brothers and dog when “we hear a really big rumble,” he told ReliableNewsMedia.

“And we think that it was a motorcycle — like, classic, early in the morning — and we turn around and we just see a cloud of dust coming our way. And we’re just like, What is going on? So we, like, we start rushing toward there. We pull our shirts over our face so we don’t get any, like, dust, in our eyes and everything.”

“What we saw from the beginning was a huge cloud of smoke and a lot of noise,” added Mich Balkany, who was also on the walk, ReliableNewsMedia reported.

“We saw this happen. It was by far the most horrific thing that I’ve seen. I was alive for 9/11. I didn’t see that happen in real life. I saw something like this happen and it’s the closest thing that I can relate to 9/11,” Mich Balkany said. “This is something that is absolutely insane … insane, insane, insane, insane.”

Added Shmuel Balkany: “We have friends who have family that live in the building. We don’t even know if they’re OK. Some of them are OK. We don’t know if the rest are OK.”

“It’s very shocking. We’re shook. We’re pretty shook. It’s not, like, processing in our minds yet,” Shmuel Balkany said.

The cause of collapse is unknown

The cause of the collapse wasn’t immediately known.

“We are still in the investigative phase and we’re not ruling out anything, but there has been no evidence founding of foul play,” Levine Cava said.

Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for the association of residents at the condo, said the building had “thorough engineering inspections over the last several months” in preparation for compliance with a 40-year certification.

The building was constructed in 1981, according to online Miami-Dade property records. Building standards were strengthened after highly destructive Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“What that tells you is…. nothing like this was foreseeable, at least it wasn’t seen by the engineers who were looking at the building from a structural perspective,” he told CNN.

An engineer had already conducted inspections to determine needed repairs, but the only work that had actually commenced was on the roof, he said.

“I’ve been at this for 40 years, no matter how bad the concrete has gotten, nobody has ever since anything like that as a result of spalling concrete,” he said.

Spalling is when part of the surface of the concrete peels, breaks or chips.

Shimon Wdowinski, a professor with Florida International University’s Institute of Environment, told CNN he determined in a study last year that the Champlain Towers South condo showed signs of sinking in the 1990s.

The condo had a “subsidence” rate of about 2 millimeters a year from 1993 to 1999, according to his study, first reported by USA Today.

While Wdowinski said that this sinking alone would likely not cause the condo’s collapse, he said it could be a contributing factor.

“If one part of the building moves with respect to the other, that could cause some tension and cracks,” he explained.

The professor said buildings in other areas had moved at higher rates, so he didn’t find the condo building’s movement unusual.

“What’s unusual is that today it collapsed,” he said.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Leyla Santiago reported from Surfside; Amanda Watts and Jason Hanna reported and wrote from Atlanta. Curt Devine, Rosa Flores, Paul P. Murphy, Melissa Alonso, John Couwels, Gregory Lemos, Steve Almasy, Hollie Silverman, Michelle Krupa, Joe Sutton and Hannah Sarisohn contributed to this report.

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