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Hear first responder describe harrowing moments after collapse


By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

Rescue teams are entering their seventh day searching the rubble of a collapsed building in Surfside, Florida — still holding out hope they will find the 149 people still unaccounted for.

“I can tell you that none of us have lost hope,” said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Eddy Alarcon. “We’ll march up to that pile and start hammering away and cutting away in hopes that we can find somebody… We’re always praying for somebody to be alive, but at the very least it gives some closure to the families waiting to hear from their loved ones.”

The condo building, Champlain Towers South, partially collapsed in the middle of the night Thursday as many residents slept. Currently, 125 people have been accounted for and 12 have been confirmed dead.

US and international teams are looking for bedrooms buried under 13-16 feet of concrete, said Col. Golan Vach, commander of the Israeli National Rescue Unit.

“There is still hope,” Vach told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “Until one week, I have a solid hope that we will find someone. After one week, it’s minor.”

Alarcon said he has no idea how long the rescue and recovery efforts will go on, especially seeing as the round-the-clock work has barely scratched the surface of removing the debris. But he said the crews were motivated by understanding the perspective of the families.

“What would I do? How hard are we going to work to save our family members if something like this were to happen?” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I just want (the families) to know that we’re doing everything we can.”

And many in the community are looking for ways they can help those impacted as well.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said that over $1.9 million has been raised to help those affected as of Tuesday, and some of those donations made to have already been distributed to at least a dozen families in need and a handful of nonprofits.

The building’s tennis center has been transformed. Now, it functions as a respite for the first responders, and the walls are adorned with flowers and photos memorializing those who are unaccounted for and the 12 who have died.

Laura Hernandez, a babysitter, used to spend hours on that court with Graciela Cattarossi while her daughter, Stella, played with the children Henandez babysat, she told CNN affiliate WSVN. Both, along with Graciela’s parents and sister, have been reported missing.

“In September I’m going to go back with the kids, but Stella and Grace are not going to be there. It makes my heart break,” Hernandez told the station.

Escapes and rescues

Those who survived the collapse have told harrowing stories of their escapes.
Iliana Monteagudo, 64, woke up in the middle of the night Thursday to a strange sound. Then, she saw a crack snaking down her wall.

Barefoot, she ran from her sixth floor unit down the stairs, hearing thunderous noises and climbing over several walls as she raced toward safety, according to CNN affiliate WPLG.

“I start going down, fast, and I hear crack, crack, crack,” she said. “I start to scream, ‘Come on God, I want to see my son, I want to see my grandson. Don’t let me die in this condition.'”

Once outside she called her son to say she was OK, but that the building behind her had collapsed.

“Three seconds separate me, the life to the death. Three seconds,” she told the station.

Sara Nir’s daughter had gone to take a shower and her son was keeping busy when Nir heard what sounded like construction noises around 1:10 a.m. She went to talk to the security guard about the noise in the night but was interrupted by a big boom and the garage collapsing.

She ran back to grab her family, she told CNN, and together they escaped. Two loud booming noises later and all they could see were white clouds from the dust.

Esther Gorfinkel, 88, was carried out of the building by neighbors as she headed slowly down the staircase.

When she told Albert Aguero, a man who carried her, that she lived a good 88 years and didn’t need to be rescued, he told her “No, you’re going to make it to your 89th birthday,” Aguero told CNN affiliate WPLG.

“I saw the sky. I knew I will be safe,” Gorfinkel said.

Engineers looking for ‘trigger events’

Because of the collapse, a building audit is underway across the county, and that audit has already uncovered serious issues, said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

“Just last night, our building officer notified one of those properties, a building in northeast Dade, that four balconies must be immediately closed to residents due to safety conditions,” Levine Cava said at a news conference Tuesday.

“We’re taking swift action to immediately identify and address any outstanding issues with the buildings that have not yet completed their 40-year certification process — that’s our priority right now,” she said.

Levine Cava said she expects all issues the audit turns up will be addressed in a matter of weeks.

Eliana Salzhauer, the commissioner of Surfside, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that the condo association had a report about the building’s condition, and she thinks they didn’t do enough.

“In hindsight, they should have made more noise. They had this report, they had a report, it said very clearly, ‘Your building is in bad shape,'” she said.

Donna DiMaggio Berger, an attorney for the condominium board, told Cuomo on Monday that she didn’t think the building was in a state of disrepair prior to its collapse.

“We have months and years to dig into what happened, and we’re going to. The board is already in the process of hiring an engineer to also try to figure out what happened, and they will be evaluating who’s responsible.”

Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer who has investigated the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City bombing, has been hired by the city to investigate the collapse.

Engineers are looking to see what the “trigger event” was for the collapse, Kilsheimer told CNN’s John Berman.

Kilsheimer said the investigation will take a long time and that they would be looking at all of the possible scenarios

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

CNN’s Kay Jones, Camille Furst, Jason Hanna, Gregory Lemos and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.

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