More than 150 people were unaccounted for after a high-rise condo building partially collapsed near Miami Beach on Thursday night, leaving at least four people dead and 11 injured, officials said.
Rescuers used both machines and their hands to comb through the twisted, shifting heap of concrete and metal, fearing the death toll could climb much higher.
With scores of firefighters working overnight to reach any survivors, hopes rested on how quickly crews using dogs and microphones to sift through the wreckage could finish their job.
“Any time that we hear a sound, we concentrate in that area,” said assistant Miami-Dade fire chief Raide Jadallah.
Two cranes began removing debris from the pile yesterday morning, creating a din of crashing glass and metal as they picked up material and dumped it to the side.
Once the machines paused, fire crews moved in to remove smaller pieces by hand in the hope of finding spots where people might be trapped, said Surfside mayor Charles Burkett.
“We do not have a resource problem, we have a luck problem,” he added.
Amid the work, Faydah Bushnaq knelt on the beach near the building’s remains and scratched “pray for their souls” in the sand.
“We were supposed to be on vacation, but I have no motivation to have fun,” said Bushnaq, from Sterling in Virginia. “It is the perfect time to say a prayer for them.”
Three more bodies were removed overnight, and Miami-Dade police director Freddy Ramirez said authorities were working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the victims. Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.
Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava said rescuers were at “extreme risk” going through the rubble.
“Debris is falling on them as they do their work. We have structural engineers on site to ensure that they will not be injured, but they are proceeding because they are so motivated and they are taking extraordinary risk on the site every day,” she added.
With searchers using saws and jackhammers to look for pockets large enough to hold a person, Levine Cava said that there was still hope of finding people alive.
Those missing from what was left of the 12-floor Champlain Towers South include people from around the world: a beloved retired Miami teacher and his wife, Orthodox Jews from Russia, Israelis, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady and other people from South America.
State senator Jason Pizzo, from Miami Beach, told the Miami Herald that he watched as tactical teams of six rescuers worked to sift through the debris yesterday
He said he saw one body taken in a yellow body bag and another that was marked. They were taken to a homicide unit tent that was set up along the beach.
Many people remained at the reunification centre set up near the site early yesterday, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.
Officials said no cause for the collapse had been established.
Video of the collapse showed the centre of the building appearing to tumble down first, with a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later and a dust cloud enveloping the neighbourhood.
About half the building’s roughly 130 apartments were affected. Rescuers used cherry-pickers to evacuate at least 35 people from the intact areas of the building in the first hours after the collapse. But with 159 still unaccounted for, work could go on for days.