Surfside community gathers for memorial, as search efforts turn from rescue to recovery
Decision was made after determining 'the viability of life in the rubble' was low
(CNN) — At the edge of the rubble from a condo building collapse in the Miami-Dade area, first responders, officials, faith leaders and journalists bowed their heads for a moment of silence Wednesday evening, honoring those who lost their lives under the debris.
The memorial was held after Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that the search effort is transitioning from rescue to recovery. The decision was made after determining “the viability of life in the rubble” was low, Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said.
The mayor said the death toll stands at 54, with 86 people “potentially unaccounted for.”
“Nothing we can do can bring back those we’ve lost, but we can and we will do everything in our power possible to identify all of the victims and to offer closure to the families in this time of unimaginable grief to share this news with the families,” Levine Cava said.
The scene was largely monochromatic: gray concrete, gray dry wall, gray rebar and gray dust still on the paws of a search dog who stood at attention for the moment of silence.
But color could be found just around the corner, where a makeshift shrine adorned the fence of a tennis court with flowers, photos and a sign that read, “Miami-Dade Search and Rescue mourns with you.”
Faith leaders offered prayers, and at one point an impromptu religious procession unfolded as sisters in brown robes lit candles and marched with a priest holding a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
The transition to a recovery operation began officially at midnight.
“Our team has developed a very detailed plan to guide the transition and to ensure that the operations proceed at the same speed and intensity,” Levine Cava said.
The way the building collapsed gave people inside the lowest probability of survival, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Raide Jadallah said, referring to it as a “pancake.”
“The other factors that we have to include, you know, the fact that we did not get in the alert (from) a K-9, a sensor trip forward, sound, and any visual utilizing our cameras. The last known alert that we received was in the initial hours the day of the collapse,” Jadallah said.
Report of damage in the garage emerges
Approximately 55 of the building’s 136 units collapsed early June 24, leaving many officials and residents asking: What caused the collapse and did the building association do enough to prevent it from happening?
The top prosecutor in Miami-Dade County said Wednesday she has formally tasked a grand jury with investigating the cause of the collapse.
In a statement, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she also asked the grand jury to “look into how we can prevent such a disaster from occurring again, not just in Surfside, and not just in condominiums, but in all buildings and structures in the coastal, intercoastal and surrounding areas of our county, state and nation.”
Grand juries are groups of residents who typically have subpoena power and work in secret with local prosecutors to investigate issues. In Florida, they can produce a report on a topic that does not necessarily pair with criminal charges.
Reports of damage to the building, cracks in the concrete and disputes over repair work have surfaced in the weeks since the collapse. And while they have prompted speculation about a potential cause, officials have said they have not identified a single trigger for the collapse.
A new detail emerged Wednesday via a police report released by the town of Surfside to CNN, which disclosed a car crash in the basement garage in 2016 caused visible damage to a cement pole.
The driver of a BMW sedan said he “accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake” before crashing into a second car and then the pole, according to the report filed just after the crash.
A crash in the garage has been among the theories floated by engineers reviewing the collapse as a possible contributing factor, and the 2016 accident, which has not been previously reported, would likely be another piece of evidence considered by investigators. But engineers who spoke to CNN cautioned it could be insignificant, especially considering when it took place.
“I would think that if the vehicle impacting the column was a factor, that you would usually find that within close proximity to the time of the accident,” said Richard Slider, a structural engineer who consults on building construction.
CNN has reached out to a spokesman for the building’s condominium board for comment and the town for more information.
Evacuations spur concerns of increasing homelessness
In the wake of the catastrophe, a Safety Task Force has been created to review the laws governing Florida’s condominium development industry, according to a statement on Tuesday.
The team will also “recommend if legislative and or regulatory changes should be enacted to minimize the likelihood of a similar tragedy,” Bob Swain, Chair of the Florida Bar Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section, said in a statement.
City and county officials have launched audits and inspections of residential condo buildings in the surrounding areas, and so far, three have generated concern.
One in Miami-Dade County had an issue with four balconies. Another in Miami Beach required the evacuation of a three-story building.
The largest impact has been in North Miami Beach, where all 156 units of Crestview Towers south were evacuated Friday after officials there said the building was deemed structurally and electrically unsafe.
In the hours following the evacuations, about 300 people were without a place to live, according to Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.
“It’s grab what you can grab, what you can put in a suitcase, what you can put in a shopping bag or carry in your arms and move along,” said Book. “That’s what they had to deal with.”
Book says families were first provided immediate shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition’s E. Darwin Fuchs Pavilion and then were placed in hotels. But as more and more buildings are inspected, Book fears there could be an increase in homelessness.
The chairman said, “I don’t know what the future holds but I am concerned as I have ever been that we will not have the resources, the housing resources to take care of those that we need to take care of.”
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