Fire rages under collapsed Miami apartment as death toll rises to five

27 June 2021, 07:32

Rescuers scour the rubble of the apartment building
Rescuers scour the rubble of the apartment building. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Workers are still searching the mountain of rubble where a Miami apartment block collapsed, killing at least 5 and leaving over 150 people unaccounted for.

A fire is smouldering under the building, turning search efforts into a "painstaking process."

Rescuers are using infrared technology, water and foam to battle the blaze, the source of which was unclear, but it is understood to be linked to where utilities would have connected to the block.

Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the smoke had been the biggest challenge, saying the fire was "very deep" and that rescuers faced "incredible difficulties" due to the flames.

At least 5 have died and over 150 are missing
At least 5 have died and over 150 are missing. Picture: PA

A fire hose blasted one of the lower floors on the north side of the tower as white smoke or steam streamed out, and a bitter, sulphur-like smell hung in the air.

"The stench is very thick," Florida governor Ron DeSantis said.

A crane removed pieces of debris from the more than 30-foot pile in the city of Surfside, and scores of rescuers used large machines, small buckets, drones, microphones and their own hands to pick through the rubble.

The cause of the collapse is under investigation
The cause of the collapse is under investigation. Picture: PA

Among those anxiously awaiting word of missing loved ones was Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, lived on the sixth floor. Speaking alongside her siblings, she said on Saturday that "we're trying to hold it together".

"I know my mom is a fighter. I know she loves us. I know she doesn't want to give up. So, you know, it's day three, so it's hard," Ms Spiegel said.

A total of 156 people were still unaccounted for two days after Thursday's collapse.

President Joe Biden said via Twitter he had spoken with Mr DeSantis on Friday to offer assistance as needed.

"My heart is with the community of Surfside as they grieve their lost loved ones and wait anxiously as search and rescue efforts continue," Mr Biden tweeted.

Authorities announced they were beginning an audit of buildings nearing their 40-year review - like the fallen Champlain Towers South - to make sure they were safe. The mayor asked other cities in the county to join the building review and said there would be state and federal funding to help.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials have joined local and state authorities at the site, Mr DeSantis said. He added a nearby "sister building" of the collapsed tower was also being investigated because it was built at the same time and with the same designer.

Surfside mayor Charles Burkett said he was working on a plan to temporarily relocate residents of the Champlain Towers North, which was constructed the same year and sits about 100 yards away from the collapsed building, and that FEMA has agreed to pay for lodging.

Mr Burkett added that he was also trying to arrange an emergency inspection and until that happens, he could not tell residents whether they were safe in their homes.

"I know that the identical building collapsed for an inexplicable reason," Mr Burkett said. "Buildings in the United States do not just fall down. Something very, very wrong was going on at that building, and we need to find out."

The news came after word of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building had "major structural damage" to a concrete slab below its pool deck that needed extensive repairs, part of a series of documents released by the city of Surfside.

While officials said no cause for the collapse early on Thursday has been determined, Mr DeSantis said a "definitive answer" was needed in a timely manner. Video showed the centre of the building appearing to tumble down first, followed by a section nearer to the beach.

The 2018 report was part of preliminary work by the engineering company conducting the building's required inspections for a recertification due this year of the building's structural integrity at 40 years. The condominium tower was built in 1981.