SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers searched through fresh rubble Monday after the last of the collapsed Florida condo building was demolished, which allowed crews into previously inaccessible places, including bedrooms where people were believed to be sleeping at the time of the disaster, officials said.
But they faced a new challenge from thunderstorms that hit the area as Tropical Storm Elsa approached the state.
Four more victims were discovered in the new pile, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members, raising the death toll to 28 people. Another 117 people remain unaccounted for.
The demolition late Sunday was crucial to the search-and-rescue effort, officials said, and raised the prospect that crews could increase both the pace of their work and the number of searchers at the site, although the chance of finding survivors 12 days after the June 24 collapse has diminished.
“We know that with every day that goes by, it is harder to see a miracle happening,” said Maggie Castro, a firefighter and paramedic with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department who briefs families daily.
Teams had been unable to access areas closest to the remaining structure because of its instability, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.
“Truly we could not continue without bringing this building down,” she said at a news conference.
Part of the existing debris pile was also helping to support the remaining structure, City of Miami Fire Rescue Capt. Ignatius Carroll said. Rescuers were still holding out hope of reuniting loved ones.
“We continue to remain focused on our primary mission, and that is to leave no stone unturned and to find as many people as we can and to help bring either some answers to family and loved ones or to bring some closure to them,” Carroll said.
The newly accessible area includes master bedrooms where people were believed to be sleeping when the building collapsed, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
“We will be able to access every part of that pile, which they hadn’t been able to do up to this point,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s going to move the pace. I think the momentum is very strong.”
Crews could be seen climbing a mound of debris at the site Monday alongside a piece of heavy equipment that was picking up rubble. Jadallah said rescuers focused on a stairwell section, but inclement weather hampered the search, particularly in a garage area that was filling with water. Crews had to pump out water.
The latest forecasts showed the storm moving westward, mostly sparing South Florida, but the area near the collapsed building experienced thunderstorms, and the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Miami Beach, which is just south of Surfside.
Lightning caused temporary stops to the search, frustrating rescue crews, Levine Cava said. “Truly they live to save lives, and they’ve pushed ahead no matter what is thrown in their way.”
After the demolition, workers immediately began clearing some of the new debris, and the search resumed around midnight, officials said. It had been called off Saturday to allow specialists to drill holes for explosives needed for the demolition.
“As a result of the contractor who brought it down, he did it in such a way that literally we actually were back on the original pile in less than 20 minutes,” Jadallah told family members of those missing earlier Monday, drawing applause in a rare upbeat moment for the twice-daily meetings.
Rescuers hoped to get a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble as they search for those believed to be trapped under the fallen wing of the Champlain Towers South. Crews, however, have found very few voids, Jadallah said.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the collapse.
During the demolition, a loud rat-a-tat of explosions echoed from the structure. Then the building began to fall, one floor after another, cascading into an explosion of dust. Plumes billowed into the air as crowds watched the scene from afar.
Some residents had pleaded to return to their homes one last time before the demolition to retrieve belongings, but they were denied. Others wondered about the pets left behind. Officials said they found no signs of animals after making three final sweeps, including the use of drones to peer into the abandoned structure.
Levine Cava said teams are working to save personal items and have asked residents to catalog what they’re missing to match with items as soon as they are recovered.
“The world is mourning for those who lost their loved ones and for those who are waiting for news from the collapse,” she said at the news conference. “To lose your home and all your belongings in this manner is a great loss as well.”
The decision to demolish the remnants of the building came after concerns mounted that the damaged structure was at risk of falling, endangering the crews below. Parts of the remaining building shifted on Thursday, prompting a 15-hour suspension in the work.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida; Associated Press writers Cody Jackson and Rebecca Santana in Surfside, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Ian Mader in Miami; David Fischer in Miami Beach, Florida; and Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.