(AFP) — More bodies were discovered overnight in the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Florida, rescuers said Wednesday, as the search for the nearly 150 people unaccounted for entered its seventh day.
While the official death toll is only 12 after most of a building in the Miami-area town of Surfside suddenly pancaked early last Thursday, hopes are dwindling that the hundreds of rescuers combing the oceanfront site will find anyone alive.
Colonel Golan Vach, head of an Israeli military unit that specialises in search and rescue operations, told CNN his team had found more bodies — but added that no new death toll would be disclosed until next of kin were notified.
Vach and other rescuers had found what he described as tunnels under the debris, and crawled through them looking for survivors.
In one case, this space was between balconies of apartments that pancaked when part of the building collapsed, he said.
“Between them remained a big space of air,” Vach said. “We crawled in those tunnels. We called people and unfortunately we didn’t find anything.”
He said hopes of finding survivors so long after the early morning collapse were “very, very minor. We must be realistic”.
– No warning –
The cave-in of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building has sparked a search-and-rescue effort involving engineers and specialists from across the United States and as far afield as Mexico and Israel.
US President Joe Biden will on Thursday visit the site with First Lady Jill Biden to ensure state and local officials have everything they need for the rescue effort, and meet with families of the victims.
Residents in the part of Champlain Towers South that remained intact reported being awakened around 1:30 am (0530 GMT) Thursday by what sounded like cracks of thunder that shook their rooms.
“It was like an earthquake,” Janette Aguero, who escaped from the tower’s 11th floor with her family, told AFP.
Rescuers who arrived in the moments after the tower came down helped evacuate dozens of residents, and pulled one teenage boy alive from the rubble.
But since then, no other survivors have been found, despite huge numbers of rescuers combing the debris with the help of sniffer dogs and cranes.
“There are currently 210 people working on the site. The urban search and rescue team has been augmented by teams from all over the state and all over the world,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on Tuesday.
Experts are looking at possible pre-existing critical flaws in the structure of the apartment tower.
An October 2018 report released by city officials last Friday revealed fears of “major structural damage” in the complex, from the concrete slab under the pool deck to the columns and beams in the parking garage.
In a letter to residents in April, Jean Wodnicki, the chair of the condo association, described “accelerating” damage to the building since then.
Repairs had been set to begin soon in the 40-year-old building — but did not come soon enough.