Four Canadians remain unaccounted for in the wake of a deadly collapse of a 12-storey condo tower in a Florida shore town, where rescuers are working around the clock in hopes of finding survivors amid the rubble of the crumbled building.
“This is a terrible situation, it’s shocking and it’s tragic,” Canada’s consul general in Miami, Susan Harper, told CBC News on Saturday as she stood in front of the family reunification centre, not far from the search and rescue site in the city of Surfside, near Miami.
Harper confirmed the four Canadians are from two different households. Relatives from one household are making their way to Florida, as they wait for more information about the search and rescue operation. A relative of the other family was already in the state.
Because of privacy rules, Harper could not share the names, ages or any specific details about the missing.
Death toll rises
The death toll from the collapse that occurred two days ago has risen to five, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on Saturday evening. Working throughout the day, rescue crews found another body amid the rubble, but also other human remains, she said.
The discovery dropped the number of unaccounted for down to 156, she said.
Rescue workers continued to go over the massive mountain of debris with rescue dogs and sonar searching for any survivors, she said.
“Our top priority continues to be search and rescue and saving any lives that we can,” she said.
Several Canadians own units in the building that has collapsed. While Harper could not provide a specific number, government officials have been able to confirm the whereabouts of all but the four missing Canadians.
But she says consular staff are working with the families to provide what information and support they can.
“Several have asked for help already, just getting here, especially in a COVID context,” Harper said.
Engineer flagged ‘concrete deterioration’
A newly released 2018 report showed that an engineer found evidence of major structural damage beneath the pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage of the condominium tower near Miami Beach, three years before it collapsed Thursday.
Officials said Saturday they harboured hope that some of the scores of people still unaccounted for might be found alive but acknowledged that a fire somewhere beneath the rubble was slowing rescue teams, filling the area with smoke and frustrating firefighters’ efforts to locate the source.
Aided by dogs, infrared scanning and heavy equipment, rescuers held out hope that air pockets that may have formed in the debris might keep people alive.
Among those anxiously awaiting word of missing loved ones was Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, lived on the sixth floor.
“I know my mom is a fighter. I know she loves us. I know she doesn’t want to give up,” Spiegel said Saturday.
Report produced for condo board
The engineer’s 2018 report, released by town officials, was produced for the condominium board in preparation for a major repair project set to get underway this year.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the damage described in the report was in any way connected with the collapse.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said officials had not been aware of the report. In an email, vice-mayor Tina Paul called the structural issue described in the document “very alarming.”
The engineer, Frank Morabito, warned that the waterproofing installed below the pool deck had failed due to a major error in design.
“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas,” he wrote. “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”
Morabito also said concrete columns, beams and walls in the garage were showing “abundant cracking,” including areas underneath the pool with “exposed, deteriorating rebar.” Morabito could not be reached for comment on Friday.
WATCH | Dozens missing after condo collapse:
Morabito’s firm submitted an 84-page document to the town in April detailing a “40-year building repair and restoration” plan for the Champlain Towers South condominium, which was built in 1981.
The condominium was preparing for recertification this year, a safety requirement for Florida buildings that reach 40 years of age.
Nearby property to be evaluated
Later Saturday, authorities said they would help residents of a similar tower nearby in Surfside — the Champlain Towers North — evacuate as they examine it for structural flaws that might indicate a similar risk.
“I need to be able to say it’s safe, and I can’t right now,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told Reuters. “In an abundance of caution it’s probably prudent to let folks relocate for a couple of weeks while we check it.”
Burkett said he had no information to indicate the north tower had similar structural flaws. But he said the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency would relocate residents for several weeks to allow a thorough review of the property.
The evacuation is not mandatory, he said, but many residents are eager to leave.