More than a day after the wing of Champlain Tower South suddenly collapsed in the middle of the night, rescue crews continued to dig through piles of rubble and twisted metal more than 30 feet high Friday morning with the unlikely hope of finding at least one survivor.
A family friend has identified Stacie Fang as one of the four people confirmed dead, ABC News has learned. Fang was the mother of Jonah Handler, a young boy that rescuers pulled from the rubble in a now-viral video.
The 12-story residential condo in beachside town of Surfside, about 6 miles north of Miami Beach, collapsed around 1:03 a.m. Thursday. Officials said the collapse affected 55 out of the building’s 136 units.
As of Thursday evening, officials said 102 people were identified and declared safe. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage in the first hours after the collapse. Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, officials said.
Mayor Charles Burkett said the building “literally pancaked” during a press conference. Officials have not pinpointed a definitive cause for the collapse, but at this point, there is no evidence to indicate that it was a result of foul play, Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told “Good Morning America.”
President Joe Biden approved a Florida emergency declaration early Friday. FEMA was authorized to identify, mobilize and provide equipment and resources to alleviate the impacts of the emergency, a White House statement read.
What we know about the missing
A massive search and rescue operation was launched before dawn and crews are still carefully combing through the wreckage and remaining structure in hopes of finding survivors.
A Miami-Dade county official told ABC News it’s been difficult to determine how many people were in the collapsed section of the building, partly due to the fact that there isn’t an on-scene management company that keeps track. The condominium is a mix of full-time residents, seasonal residents, renters and short-term visitors, so authorities have been relying largely on neighbors and word of mouth.
The Champlain Towers South drew a considerable amount of foreigners, according to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL.
The Paraguayan president’s sister-in-law and her family are among the missing, the country’s foreign ministry confirmed. The first lady’s sister Sophia Lopez Moreira, her husband Luis Pettengill, their three unidentified children and nanny Lady Luna Villalba were in the building at the time of the collapse, officials said.
Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay all reported foreign nationals lived in the building.
Raide Jadallah, an assistant Miami-Dade County fire chief, said that while listening devices placed on and in the wreckage had picked up no voices, they had detected possible banging noises, giving rescuers hope some are alive. Rescuers were tunneling into the wreckage from below, going through the building’s underground parking garage.
The official told ABC News that there’s real concern about the structural integrity of the remaining building, particularly from dangling wires and portions of concrete. Fires have flared up throughout the day, adding to the danger for the search and rescue teams, the official said.
Many people remained at the reunification center set up near the collapse site early Friday morning, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.
Investigation into the collapse
The cause of the Champlain Tower South collapse was unknown. The Miami-Dade Police Department is leading an investigation into the incident.
The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $ 600,000 to $ 700,000.
Surfside Commissioner Nelly Velasquez told ABC News that the building was up for its 40-year recertification.
The Champlain Towers South Condo Association was preparing to start a new construction project to make updates and the condominium had been through extensive inspections, according to Kenneth Direktor, a lawyer for the association. Direktor said that he hadn’t been warned of any structural issues with the building or about the land it was built on. He said there was water damage to the complex, but that is common for oceanfront properties and wouldn’t have caused the collapse.
“Nothing like this has ever been seen, at least not in the 40 years I’ve been doing this,” Direktor told ABC News.
Families awaiting answers
Fortuna Smukler posted about the disaster on Facebook, hoping that someone would know the whereabouts of Myriam Caspi Notkin and Arnie Notkin, an elderly couple who lived on the third floor.
Arnie Notkin spent years teaching physical education at a local elementary school, said Smukler, a North Miami Beach commissioner who is friends with Myriam Notkin’s daughters.
“He was such a well-liked P.E. teacher from people’s past,” she said. “Everyone’s been posting, ‘Oh my god, he was my coach.'”
“It would be a miracle if they’re found alive,” she added.
Nicholas Fernandez spent hours after the collapse trying to call two friends who were staying in the building with their young daughter. The family had come to the United States to avoid the COVID-19 outbreak in their home country of Argentina, said Fernandez, of Miami.
“The hope is that, perhaps, someone hears the call. I know there are dogs inside,” he said. “I know it may sound ridiculous what I’m saying but there’s always hope until we hear different.”
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside.
Albert and Janette Aguero suddenly awoke early Thursday to what they said sounded like a “really loud clap of thunder.” Then their bedroom began to shake.
The New Jersey couple were vacationing with their two children in southern Florida, staying on the 11th floor of the oceanfront Champlain Towers South condominium in a unit owned by their parents.
“The chandeliers and the pendant lights [were] just swaying completely, and that was not normal. It was not a clap of thunder and it wasn’t a storm; it was something else,” Albert Aguero told ABC News’ T.J. Holmes in an interview Friday on “Good Morning America.”
“The whole bedroom was shaking so violently that, honestly, I was prepared for the whole building to come down,” Janette Aguero added.
It wasn’t until they opened the door to the hallway that they realized what had actually happened.
“I looked to the left and the apartment to our left was half sheared off. I looked forward, which is where the elevator shaft is, and it was just a hole,” Albert Aguero recalled. “At that point, we knew it was a race against time because I didn’t know if the rest of the building was coming [down].”
The couple said their 22-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter were “mere feet away” from the part of the building that collapsed.
“It could have been a very different thing,” Janette Aguero said, her voice wavering with emotion. “I don’t think I’ve really processed what happened.”
ABC Owned Television Stations and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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