The death toll from the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, stood at 24 on Sunday, with 121 still missing. But rescue crews made way for demolition teams as officials shifted their focus to bringing down the unstable remainder of the structure ahead of a tropical storm.
In a small moment of hope on Saturday, a cat was seen wandering a lower floor of the remaining flank of the 12-story complex. Crews hoped to rescue the animal but it could not be immediately determined whether it belonged to any resident.
In nearby Miami Beach, a three-story apartment building was evacuated on Saturday after an inspector discovered structural damage in a vacant unit. A city inspector found a flooring system failure and “excessive deflection” on an exterior wall.
Several residential buildings in Florida have been evaluated since the Surfside collapse, which happened on 24 June. In North Miami Beach on Friday, residents were forced out of the 156-unit Crestview Towers after it was deemed structurally and electrically unsafe.
In Surfside on Sunday, crews prepared for demolition. Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, Mayor Charles Burkett said: “We need to get back to [searching the rubble] as soon as possible. We need to get this building taken down and we need to move forward with the rescue of all those people that are still left in the rubble.
He added: “The intention is to bring the building down in a westward direction so that the debris pile that exists with victims in it is not affected. You know, the [approaching storm] is going to turn out to have probably been a blessing in disguise because there’s an area of that mound which we were not able to work in safely. And this demolition is going to open up wide the whole area. And we’re going to be able to pour resources onto that pile.”
The search and rescue mission was suspended on Saturday so workers could begin boring holes to hold explosives, Miami-Dade assistant fire chief Raide Jadallah told people awaiting word on loved ones. He said the suspension was necessary because the drilling could cause the structure to fail. If that were to happen, he said, “It’s just going to collapse without warning”.
One relative was heard calling it “devastating” that the search was on pause. She asked if rescuers could at least work the perimeter so as not “to stop the operation for so many painful hours”.
Officials said demolition work could not be avoided. Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters: “We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering. It is structurally unsound. And although the eye of the storm is not likely to pass over this direction, you could feel gusts in this area.”
The apartment building in nearby Miami Beach was evacuated out of an abundance of caution, authorities said. It contains 24 units, 11 unoccupied. Another condo with 72 units in Kissimmee was reported to officials after contractors said there were “significant” structural issues. Some residents chose to stay in hotels paid for by the county, while others appeared to remain in their homes, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In Surfside, officials reassured families they had done their best to look for missing pets. On a day that saw the death toll rise, Miami-Dade assistant fire chief Raide Jadallah interrupted a family briefing to share news of the cat.
“So apparently there’s a cat now that may have gone out and gotten onto a balcony,“ he said.
The news brought murmurs of excitement.
“Hold on,” Jadallah told the crowd, “I haven’t spoken to the cat yet.”
Earlier, Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at least three sweeps for pets had been conducted – and none had been found.
“I very much understand that pets are part of people’s families,” the mayor said. “My heart goes out to those who fear for their animals, and I just want you to know that additional efforts have been made and are being made.”
Earlier in the week, a firefighter attempted to locate the cat of an elderly woman and her daughter who lived on the fourth floor of the still-standing wing. The two women escaped with their dog, Rigatoni. But their cat, Coco, was apparently left behind. Ken Russell, a commissioner for the city of Miami who is married to a vet, alerted officials.
“Once I realized a cat was still in jeopardy, I called the fire chief,” he said, adding that he made sure no resources were taken away from the search and rescue mission. Russell also said he’d heard of other pets left behind, including a dog in a crate on the ninth floor and two parrots and a cat on the 10th.
“People rely on them for their mental stability and their comfort,” Russell said. “To know that they left their animal behind is a tremendous sense of guilt.”
On Sunday, the confirmed death toll from collapse stood at 24. On Saturday night, Miami-Dade police added Graciela Cattarossi, 48, and Gonzalo Torre, 81, to the list of the dead. No one has been rescued since the hours after the collapse.