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In the heap of concrete and twisted steel, the imprint of lives lost, memories and dashed hope

By Rosa Flores, Leyla Santiago, Sara Weisfeldt and Ray Sanchez, CNN

The hulking pile of concrete and twisted steel rises from the ground — a heap of mangled air conditioning units, razor-sharp metal bars, shattered walls and balconies and now-browning palm fronds that had once been the thriving Champlain Towers South.

In the gray and dusty remains of the condo building that partially collapsed in the early hours of June 24 in Surfside, Florida, you could see a piece of what appeared to be a window blind or wallpaper with a floral pattern.

And you couldn’t help thinking that someone might recognize the flowery pattern that once adorned their mother or grandmother’s home. Many things cross your mind. The enormity of the disaster. The number of people who have lost a loved one. Someone they knew. Those who held out hope for a miracle.

Hope that was dashed Wednesday when families of the missing were informed that crews were shifting their efforts from rescue to recovery, according to multiple sources.

Two weeks after the building collapsed, 54 people have been confirmed dead, officials said Wednesday. The victims range in age from 4 to 92. Another 86 residents are unaccounted for as the chances of finding survivors diminished with each day.

You struggled to find something — anything — recognizable in the debris. For any sign of life after nearly 55 of the building’s 136 units collapsed — one floor falling into the floor below and so on and so on.

The beige entrance sign that greeted residents and visitors to 8777 Collins Avenue still stands before the debris pile. The letters that spelled out Champlain Towers South appeared worn and faded. Maybe they were removed.

Reporters got their closest look at the site this week — the remains of the portion of the Champlain Towers South that had stood until it was demolished on Sunday. The demolition allowed crews to safely continue the search, eliminating the threat of a secondary collapse.

Behind the pile, cranes and other heavy machinery rumbled in the methodical search. A pair of American flags fluttered atop a crane that towered over Collins Avenue.

You can feel the pain and sense of urgency among relatives awaiting news and among the small army of rescue personnel who risk their lives working 12-hour shifts. Crews monitored the site for any signs of danger from nearby buildings.

The site has been divided into grids. Some 200 search and rescue workers ferret through the rubble. Crews in hard hats meticulously work to remove debris chunks with their hands, looking for voids and spaces to fit cameras that widen their reach. K-9 units combed the mound for signs of life. Heavy equipment moved in only after an area is considered safe and free of human remains or survivors.

The search continued through inclement weather from Tropical Storm Elsa, which passed by the opposite coast of Florida.

A relative of one missing resident watched the operation from a memorial wall about a block away. Hope was running out, he said. Photos of the missing, many of them smiling, look out on visitors to the makeshift memorial.

The muggy morning air, thick with dust from the debris site, mixes with the scent of flowers withering under a hot sun. Heavy machinery roars in the background.

Passersby mask swollen eyes behind sunglasses. Some weep. Others briefly pay their respects by leaving a candle, a stuffed animal or a religious figurine. A baby blue heart with a name is left for each confirmed victim.

Moshe Candiotti, who ran for his life and survived the collapse, said the memorial fills him with mixed emotions. He’s grateful to have made it out alive. But his heart aches for neighbors who perished.

Of the money, jewelry and other possessions lost in the collapse, Candiotti said, he only yearns for an old photograph of his mother that he looked at every morning.

Concrete-filled dump trucks passed by. Candiotti wondered if the beloved portrait was hauled away forever.

Surfside is a quaint, tight-knit community. It is not Miami Beach. Strangers greet each other on the street. Its beaches and walking paths provide a respite from the pace of life further south.

Alfonso Enrique Guzman, a 64-year-old man who has lived on the street for five years, pointed out a photograph of a missing woman. He never got her name but her kindness and generosity touched him. One day she handed him five dollars and a bottle of cold water.

You only hope you tell their story with the respect they deserve.

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

Rosa Flores, Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt reported from Surfside, Florida, and Ray Sanchez reported and wrote from New York.

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