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Death toll climbs to 4 in Miami-area condo collapse, with 159 people missing

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Officials say there are still 159 people unaccounted for after the partial collapse of a beachside building in Florida.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday that rescue officials continued to search for survivors from the condo building collapse in in the Miami-area town of Surfside.

Three bodies were pulled from the rubble of the Champlain Towers overnight, bringing the death toll to four, Levine Cava said. Officials feared that number could skyrocket. Eleven injuries were reported, with four people treated at hospitals.

“These are very difficult times, and things are going to get more difficult as we move forward,” Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said.

Ramirez said they are working with the medical examiner’s office to identify the four victims.

Raide Jadallah, an assistant Miami-Dade County fire chief, said that 130 firefighters are working at the site. Hopes rested on how quickly crews using dogs and microphones to sift through the wreckage could complete their grim, yet delicate task. 

“Every time we hear a sound, we concentrate on those areas,” said Jadallah.

‘Extreme risk’

Cava said rescuers were at “extreme risk” going through the rubble.

“Debris is falling on them as they do their work. We have structural engineers on site to ensure that they will not be injured, but they are proceeding because they are so motivated and they are taking extraordinary risk on the site every day,” she said.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami Beach told the Miami Herald he watched as tactical teams of six worked early Friday to sift through the debris. He said he saw one body taken in a yellow body bag and another that was marked. They were taken to a homicide unit tent set up along the beach.

This photo shows an an aerial view of the building that partially collapsed early Thursday morning. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Many people remained at the reunification centre set up near the collapse site early Friday morning, awaiting results of DNA swabs that could help identify victims.

Officials said no cause for the collapse has been determined.

Huge dust cloud

Video of the collapse showed the centre of the building appearing to tumble down first and a section nearest to the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later, as a huge dust cloud engulfed the neighborhood.

About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, and rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage in the first hours after the collapse.

Television video early Friday showed crews still fighting flare-ups of fire on the rubble piles. Intermittent rain over South Florida is also hampering the search.

Jadallah said that while listening devices placed on and in the wreckage had picked up no voices, they had detected possible banging noises, giving rescuers hope some are alive. Rescuers were tunnelling into the wreckage from below, going through the building’s underground parking garage.

Personal belongings were evidence of shattered lives amid the wreckage of the Champlain, which was built in 1981 in Surfside, a small suburb north of Miami Beach. A children’s bunk bed perched precariously on a top floor, bent but intact and apparently inches from falling into the rubble. A comforter lay on the edge of a lower floor.

Among the missing are Argentines Dr. Andres Galfrascoli, his husband, Fabian Nunez, and their six-year-old daughter, Sofia, who had spent Wednesday night in an apartment in the Champlain Towers belonging to a friend, Nicolas Fernandez.

WATCH | Dozens unaccounted for after condo collapse near Miami: 

Dozens of people are unaccounted for and at least one person is dead after a 12-storey condo building collapsed in a beachfront community outside Miami. 1:52

Galfrascoli, a Buenos Aires plastic surgeon, and Nunez, a theatre producer and accountant, had come to Florida to get away from a COVID-19 resurgence in Argentina and its strict lockdowns. They had worked hard to adopt Sofia, Fernandez said.

“Of all days, they chose the worst to stay there,” Fernandez said. “I hope it’s not the case, but if they die like this, that would be so unfair.”

Relative of Paraguayan president among missing

They weren’t the only South Americans missing. Foreign ministries and consulates of four countries said 22 nationals were missing in the collapse: nine from Argentina, six from Paraguay, four from Venezuela and three from Uruguay.

The Paraguayans included Sophia Lopez Moreira — the sister of first lady Silvana Abdo and sister-in-law of President Mario Abdo Benitez — and her family.

Israeli media said the country’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, believes that 20 citizens of that country are missing.

Also missing was Arnie Notkin, a retired Miami-area elementary school physical education teacher, and his wife, Myriam. They lived on the third floor.

“Everyone’s been posting, ‘Oh my God, he was my coach,”‘ said Fortuna Smukler, a friend who turned to Facebook in hopes of finding someone who would report them safe.

“They were also such happy, joyful people. He always had a story to tell, and she always spoke so kindly of my mother,” Smukler said. “Originally, there were rumours that he had been found, but it was a case of mistaken identity. It would be a miracle if they’re found alive.”

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