UPDATE, 7/13 11:03 a.m.: SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) – The death toll in the Miami-area condominium building collapse climbed to 95 on Tuesday as crews worked for a 20th day to find victims in the rubble.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said 14 people remain unaccounted for in the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. No one has been found alive since the first hours after the building fell.
With 85 of the victims identified, the mayor noted that the work of identifying the bodies has become more difficult with the passage of time.
Samantha J. Gross and Martin Vassolo
SURFSIDE, Fla. – On the 19th day since the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South, search teams continued to work through the rubble in the effort to find the remains of every last victim.
But torrential rain and elapsed time have slowed the process of finding and identifying victims, bringing delays to an already painstaking process as officials ask the public and victims’ loved ones for patience as their work continues.
The search effort stopped three times between midnight and 9 a.m., and again for about three hours between noon and 3 p.m. Storms knocked over prayer candles and bouquets of flowers at the makeshift memorial on Harding Avenue.
After the weather delays overnight, four more victims were recovered, bringing the death toll in the partial collapse of the 12-story condo tower to 94, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told media Monday morning.
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Of those, 83 people have been identified, though “the process of making identifications has become more difficult as time goes on,” she said.
On July 4, the remaining portion of the building was brought down in a controlled demolition and three days later, Levine Cava announced that there was no hope of finding anyone alive in the debris, a decision that shifted the mission from a rescue operation run by the county fire department to a death investigation overseen by Miami-Dade Police.
“The recovery is yielding human remains,” she said Monday.
She said recovery efforts are leaning heavily on the work of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s office to identify victims by the DNA in their remains, a technical and scientific process that has become more meticulous with each passing day.
There are people who are deceased that may still be on the list of the 22 potential missing, because they have not yet been identified.
Levine Cava acknowledged that families are “in anguish” awaiting the identification of their loved ones, and asked that the community continue to keep them in mind.
“The process is methodical and careful, and it does take time,” she said.
A COVID-19 SCARE
After Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz and his aide tested positive for COVID-19, Levine Cava said “everybody who’s come in close proximity has been tested using both rapid and longer-term tests.”
Some reporters at the media briefing were wearing face masks.
“We have been fully tested,” she said.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Dr. Emma Lew said because of the natural elements and the long period of time since the collapse, the remains are deteriorating in ways that make it hard to recover DNA.
“It just takes longer to process,” she said. “The skin is not optimal for fingerprints. We are getting into a state where the tissues are disintegrating, a state where we just have bones. It’s getting more and more difficult.”
On Monday afternoon, police released the names of nine victims found between Thursday and Saturday.
The names of the newly identified victims are: Lisa Rosenberg, 27; Arnold Notkin, 87; Judith Spiegel, 65; Margarita Bello, 68; Cassie Stratton, 40; Fabian Nunez, 57; Catalina Ramirez, 45; Nicole Doran, 43, and Beatriz Guerra, 52.
NO TIMELINE YET
On Monday, Levine-Cava said while the timeline for clearing the site is still unclear, they project the window to extend 14 to 21 more days, “but hopefully on the shorter side of that.”
“We are making great progress on the pile … no specific timeline,” she said.
Twelve million tons of concrete have been removed as of Sunday, she said, but workers continue to dig, de-layer and access lower portions of the building.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told media Saturday that the pace of the operation makes it “very likely that the site will be clear sooner than expected.”
SECURITY TIGHTENED ON SITE
Officials said Monday they would tighten security around the site of the collapse, citing the long wait families have endured and their requests to retrieve items from the ruins.
Most items recovered from the rubble are put into boxes and taken to a warehouse to be inspected by detectives for evidence of what may have caused the collapse.
“We’ve always had it secure, but we really want to make sure,” Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez told reporters. “There’s a lot of emotion … As families are being notified about their family members, the ask is always about property. People want some sort of connection with their family member, so it’s very important that our process that we have in place continues to flow uninterrupted.”
He stressed that the added security was not caused by any breach of the law but due to the “long, painful, hurtful process” families and detectives are going through. He said detectives have set up a makeshift property room and are sifting meticulously through the personal items found at the site. The goal, he said, is to give families closure down the road.
“There’s no criminality here, not at all. It’s just, you know, we’re 19 days into it, there’s still families that are sitting there. There’s still families that are now recalling things. Nobody has done anything criminal; it’s just part of the process.”
Meanwhile, teams from Miami-Dade Police are working in alternating 12-hour shifts recovering, tagging and storing any personal belongings found in the rubble. The items that are found are taken to pods on site and placed in evidence bags that are heat-sealed to prevent anything escaping, said Sgt. Danny Murillo, who leads one team searching through the personal belongings from what is left of the Champlain Towers South.
“As we’re sorting through the property, we pretty much separate it between money, firearms, heirlooms, things of value and other things such as religious artifacts,” Murillo told the Herald.
Police then mark the bags of evidence with where in the pile it was found – each grid of the collapse zone correlates to a section of the building – and a description of what is in the bags. If police are fortunate enough to know the owner, they’ll write that down, too. Religious items, determined by a rabbi helping in the process, are separated into different bins.
The bags go in bins, which then get stored in a shipping container locked with a key and with its own police surveillance.
Murillo said he doesn’t know when families will be able to retrieve their personal belongings, or those of their loved ones. He doesn’t know how many items his teams have sorted through.
“This is a massive undertaking,” he said. “It’s a lot of work.”
COMMUNITY CENTER REOPENS TO PUBLIC
The Surfside Community Center, which previously served as a family reunification center and more recently as a food distribution site, is reopening to the public after being part of relief efforts related to the collapse for nearly three weeks.
A town spokeswoman said the center had been occupied by Miami-Dade County personnel and the local restaurant Surf-n-Sides Bistro. Town Manager Andy Hyatt sent the restaurant a letter Friday asking that it cease operations by 5 pm. Monday in order to “return some sense of normalcy” to the town.
Residents have been asking the town when they could regain access to the public pool behind the center, which has been closed as the center served as an aid site, the spokeswoman said. The restaurant’s operations – including propane tanks, ovens and generators – are located in an outdoor courtyard near the pool, the spokeswoman said.
“The Town deeply appreciates the food distribution services and assistance provided to residents, families of survivors and first responders during this difficult and tragic time,” Hyatt wrote. “As we enter the third week since this tragedy, we recognize that the needs and demands of the community and first responders have changed, as well as the needs of Surfside staff and residents to return to some normalcy.”
Hyatt said the town has “operational and safety concerns returning to normal operations at the Community Center with the existing and expanded food operation, including health, sanitation, fire and public.”
Burkett told reporters Monday that he enjoyed visiting the food operation but keeping it there was a safety hazard.
“It was thrown together pretty quickly,” he said.
PROPERTY TAX DEADLINES LIFTED FOR CHAMPLAIN RESIDENTS
The Miami-Dade County property appraiser’s office Monday agreed with Gov. Ron DeSantis that surviving unit owners and families of people lost in the condo collapse won’t have property taxes due this fall or see notices next month.
Last Friday, DeSantis signed an executive order that waived deadlines tied to yearly bills from local governments. The order doesn’t erase property taxes, but does lift the deadlines for various tax notices as well as the collection of property taxes, delinquent taxes and the deadlines for people who hope to challenge the county over the assessed value of their property.
“I believe this executive order will provide some relief to those property owners affected by the unprecedented tragedy that occurred in Surfside, and I intend to provide the maximum relief permissible by law,” Pedro Garcia, the county’s property appraiser, wrote in a press release.
Garcia said during the next legislative session, he will work with lawmakers to consider allowing surviving homeowners of the collapse who have a homestead exemption on the property to transfer their benefit from their 2020 assessment prior to the catastrophe.
“This would allow the Champlain Towers South homeowners to maximize their tax benefits in the future as well,” he said.
Garcia urged survivors who believe their property had structural defects or incorrect property values to contact his office with “data, reports or documents supporting such claims.”
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