Officials announced Wednesday evening that the search and rescue efforts at the collapsed Miami Beach-area condo building would shift to a recovery operation, signaling the formal end of the search for survivors.
With 86 people still unaccounted for, crews have not found anyone alive since shortly after half of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, crumbled into a pile of rubble in less than a minute early June 24.
For two weeks, officials called the grueling, nearly-nonstop dig a search and rescue mission.
Fifty-four people have been confirmed dead in the partial collapse, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Wednesday. The announced recovery of 18 bodies Wednesday was the biggest single-day spike in the death toll yet.
Of the 54 people confirmed dead, 33 have been identified, and their families have been notified, Levine Cava said.
“The transition from rescue to recovery will take place at midnight tonight,” Levine Cava said at a news conference, describing the decision as “extremely difficult.”
“Please join me in praying for those we have lost and those we are mourning,” she said.
Levine Cava praised the rescue team of volunteers from around the world, calling them “men and women whose own lives are driven by a single purpose: to save the lives of others.”
President Joe Biden, who visited the area last week, called to offer his continued support, Levine Cava said.
Weather briefly hampered the rescue efforts. While Tropical Storm Elsa made landfall on Florida’s opposite coast, the Miami area was still feeling its effects, with strong winds and rain.
A video released Tuesday by the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department showed dozens of people working on the pile as tarps and tents waved in the wind and palm trees swayed from side to side.
Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said the decision to call off the rescue effort “was not an easy one, as our hearts still hoped to find survivors, but our experience and expertise indicated that was no longer possible.”
Cominsky said search crews had used “every resource and expertise available to find life under the rubble.”
“Crews worked under arduous conditions through rain, smoke, fire and even imminent danger of a secondary collapse,” he said.
“The men and women who arrived here in the early morning hours of June 24 did not anticipate the tragedy that had unfolded before their eyes. These courageous individuals saw the possibility to save lives at the risk of losing their own and immediately acted,” he said.
Workers were able to search a broader area after the unstable remaining part of the building was demolished.
Crews have removed 124 tons of debris, Cominsky said. In response to a question from a reporter, he said none of the victims who have been recovered survived the collapse, as far as their remains indicated.
The debris is being sorted and then stored in a warehouse as potential evidence in the investigation into why the building collapsed, officials said.
Documents released by officials revealed previous concerns about the structural integrity of Champlain Towers South. The findings from an engineering consultant, Frank Morabito, showed that there was “abundant cracking” and crumbling in the underground parking garage of the building, according to a 2018 report.
Morabito recommended that concrete slabs, which were “showing distress” by the entrance and the pool deck, “be removed and replaced in their entirety.” He said the concrete deterioration should “be repaired in a timely fashion.”
The National Institute of Standards and Technology and local agencies are investigating what caused half the building to flatten.