Fourteen days after the catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., officials have called off the search for survivors, effective at midnight local time.
"Our top priority since Day 1 has been to do everything possible, everything humanly possible, and to explore every single portion of the collapsed grid in search of survivors," Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a press conference Wednesday evening. "At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search and rescue mission."
No one had been pulled alive from the rubble since the early hours after the building partially crumbled on June 24. Rescue crews — who by Wednesday had removed 7 million pounds of concrete and cement from the wreckage — had said they would keep searching as long as there was a chance someone could be found.
Nearly 90 people are still unaccounted for. The death toll stands at 54 but is expected to rise.
Search teams had used dogs, sonar and cameras in hopes of finding survivors. In recent days, the search had largely transitioned to trying to identify voids in the wreckage where a human may have been able to survive, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah.
"Initially it was looking for victims that were trapped. Then it shifted to – 'God, at least give us a void large enough to find a victim.' And we just couldn't," Jadallah said.
Survivability is higher when walls or floors collapse in such a way that they create triangle-shaped spaces against other surfaces, Jadallah said. But the nature of the Champlain Tower collapse, he said, calling it a "pancake collapse," meant that floors collapsed directly on top of each other, leaving desperately little space for someone to survive.
"Typically an individual has a specific amount of time in regards to lack of food, water, and air. This collapse just doesn't provide any of that sort," Jadallah said.
As of Wednesday morning, none of the dead recovered by search teams had survived the initial collapse, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky told reporters earlier.
Families of victims were informed of the decision to transition to a "recovery" phase earlier Wednesday, officials said. Levine Cava called those conversations "devastating" and said support was being offered to them "to come to closure as soon as possible."
"This is our community, our neighbors, our families," she said. "And our first responders have truly searched that pile every single day since the collapse as if they're searching for their own loved ones."
The pace of the recovery operation had picked up Wednesday as weather improved following Tropical Storm Elsa's landfall on Florida's Gulf Coast. Rescue crews had gained access to parts of the collapse site that had been off-limits after the remaining structure was demolished Sunday.
The recovery phase of the operation can be slower and more methodical than the rescue one, experts say.
"Now, you really are going through every little piece of material to make sure the areas are completely clear and that we're doing the best job to bring closure to all of the families," said Jeff Saunders, director of Texas A&M Task Force 1, a federal-level search and rescue team operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.