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Search and rescue efforts at collapsed Surfside condo paused for demolition preparation

By Jason Hanna, Aya Elamroussi and David Shortell, CNN

[Breaking news update at 6:24 p.m. ET]

Search and rescue efforts at the partially collapsed South Florida condo will temporarily pause as officials prepare for the demolition of the building’s remaining units, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday.

Search and rescue will resume on safe sections of the site once officials are cleared to do so, she said.

Levine Cava did not provide a time for the planned demolition. Officials said earlier Saturday a crew could demolish the remaining units of Champlain Towers South as soon as Sunday, ahead of the approaching Tropical Storm Elsa.

[Original story, published at 3:38 p.m. ET]

A crew could demolish remaining units of the partially collapsed South Florida condo building as soon as Sunday, officials said, racing against time as Tropical Storm Elsa approaches the state.

Otherwise, Elsa’s winds, which might reach the area early next week, could topple the structure unsafely, officials said.

A controlled demolition would temporarily halt search and rescue operations in the rubble of the already-collapsed portions. But then searchers could resume work without fear of the standing portions coming down on them, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

“I think as early as tomorrow (Sunday)” the standing portions could be demolished, Burkett said at a news conference Saturday morning.

Nearly 55 of the 136 units of the Champlain Towers South, in Surfside just north of Miami Beach, pancaked to the ground in the early hours of June 24. The death toll is 24 so far, and 124 people were unaccounted for of Saturday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

The forecast track for Elsa is uncertain, but even if it’s centered well west of Surfside as currently predicted, its windy outer bands could hit Surfside and southeastern Florida by Tuesday, forecasters say.

The demolition timeline has not been finalized, as engineers still were at the site doing due diligence, Levine Cava said Saturday morning.

But officials’ previous thinking about the timeline — that it couldn’t be done before Elsa arrived — changed after they spoke late Friday with a demolition expert who indicated it could be done sooner, Levine Cava said.

Levine Cava on Friday signed an order allowing crews to demolish the remaining structure — but at the time said it could be weeks before the demolition could happen.

Demolition plans still were being made, but they would aim to take the standing portions straight down with charges, Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said Saturday.

The demolition would have “a very narrow footprint” so evacuations in the area are not planned, besides temporarily moving the rescuers from the rubble, Levine Cava said. Already-searched areas of the rubble would be covered before the demolition, Cominsky said.

Controlled Demolition Inc. would be in charge of the demolition, and has done large demolitions in the past, Levine Cava said.

Search and rescue operations continued Saturday morning at the site, where teams have been scouring concrete rubble up to 16 feet deep.

Late Friday, a county attorney said in a court filing that the remaining portion of the building is not structurally sound and is behaving in ways that indicate it may fall down, a county attorney said in a court filing late Friday.

Search and rescue crews were under “immediate threat” due to the building’s instability and Tropical Storm Elsa, which currently is in Caribbean, said David Murray, the attorney for Miami-Dade County.

Murray’s court filing said a collapse of the remaining structure would “cause the release of hazardous household materials, particulate matter, and will pose fire risk.”

“An uncontrolled collapse of the structure — which is surrounded by residential property, and which is currently being worked and secured by hundreds of fire rescue personnel, police officers, and other government employees — poses significant risk to human life and property,” Murray wrote in the filing.

Fire department confirm member’s child found in the rubble

A 7-year-old girl who died in the collapse was the daughter of a member of the Miami Department of Fire and Rescue, officials said Friday.

Members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team on Florida Task Force 2 recovered the girl’s body Thursday night, Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban said in a statement.

The girl’s father did not find her body, officials said, adding that other team members alerted him Thursday night.

A relative, Nicole Mejias, identified the girl as Stella Cattarossi, who Mejias said was found dead in the rubble with her mother, Graciela Cattarossi.

Mejias said five of her family members were in the building when it collapsed, and three others remain unaccounted for: Stella’s grandparents Gino and Graciela Cattarossi — whom Stella and her mother lived with — and her aunt, Andrea Cattarossi. Mejias said Andrea was visiting from Argentina, where she has three sons.

“We just miss them so much already,” Mejias told CNN. “We wish this tragedy didn’t happen and will always remember them.”

Capt. Ignatius Carroll, a spokesperson for Florida Task Force 2, told CNN in an interview Saturday that it was “very difficult” finding the girl, since she was the child of one of their “brother firefighters.” But it gave the girl’s family “peace of mind,” he said.

“And that’s the goal that we have with everybody that’s out there on that pile, trying to do their best in this continued search effort to reunite families with their loved ones,” Carroll said.

Officials Friday released the names of three people who died in the collapse. Bonnie Epstein, 56; Claudio Bonnefoy, 85 and Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69 were recovered over the past two days.

Criticism of the former Surfside building official

Amid the increased scrutiny of the condo board and its response to a 2018 report citing “major structural damage,” the actions of the city are also getting fresh attention.

Surfside’s former building official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, assured residents of Champlain Towers South that their building was “in very good shape” in November 2018, despite having received a report warning of “major structural damage.”

He worked for the city of Miami Beach as a senior building inspector from about 2007 to 2013. In an April 2012 email, Prieto’s boss expressed frustration with Prieto’s attendance issues.

“[I] am having problems with him for coming late, not calling on time when sick, forgetting to punch in or out, not answering the phone, etc. I suggest to have a meeting with him to establish disciplinary actions,” the email stated, noting that Prieto missed inspections that day.

Prieto had emailed his boss earlier that afternoon saying he had “been fighting a sinus infection for almost a year” and “had a bad reaction to [his] medications.”

He was suspended weeks later for missing work twice within a 12-month period without his supervisor’s authorization on two occasions. A 2013 performance review stated that he was absent an excessive number of days and arrived late 22 times in a one-year period, according to documents, which were first reported by The New York Times.

A 2007 memo about Prieto’s initial hiring in Miami Beach stated that he brought “extensive industry experience and education” to the job. A spokesperson for the city told CNN he left the job in good standing.

Prieto has not responded to CNN’s multiple requests for comment.

Prieto led the building department in Surfside in 2018 when it became the target of mounting complaints by residents and contractors — so much so that the town manager at the time told CNN he placed the office under administrative review.

The city of Doral, Florida, said it began reviewing eight projects Prieto had worked on since arriving in the position in May “out of an abundance of caution.”

“The internal review of the work done by Mr. Prieto is an ongoing process by our licensed experts,” a spokesperson for Doral said Friday in a statement.

Condo association challenges

Max Friedman, a former member of the condo association, told CNN on Friday that board resignations — largely over how to find the $15 million that was needed to fix the building’s many structural issues — held up the much-needed repairs.

“I would never quit a board — I think that’s terrible,” said Friedman, who was a member from 2011 until 2016 and lives in Manhattan. When asked about the general sentiment among residents, he said, “there was confusion” and he personally felt the resignations of board members were “inappropriate.”

As the investigation continues into what led to the partial collapse, public scrutiny has turned to the condo board.

“We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy,” the board said Friday in a statement.

Still, Friedman was careful to note that he didn’t think the board could have possibly known that the building was in immediate danger.

“The township didn’t tell us,” said Friedman, referring to Prieto, who was Surfside’s building official at the time.

Friedman described Champlain Towers South as a tight-knit community of residents from all over the world. He said one of the residents he was close with is among the confirmed dead, and other friends are unaccounted for.

“Every civil engineer from here to the moon is now drawing conclusions,” Friedman said. “Eventually, it’ll be determined what caused this.”

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

CNN’s Natasha Chen, Claudia Dominguez, David Shortell, Rosa Flores, Curt Devine and Daniel A. Medina contributed to this report

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