Death toll in Florida building collapse rises to 4, with 159 people now unaccounted for

By Aya Elamroussi, Rosa Flores and Ray Sanchez, CNN

    (CNN) -- The death toll from Thursday's partial collapse of a South Florida residential building has risen to four and the number of unaccounted increased by the dozens, officials said Friday morning, as a painstaking search continued for survivors in the rubble.

Three bodies were found overnight from Thursday into Friday in the wreckage of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said -- adding to one found early Thursday.

The number of people unaccounted for is now 159, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters -- up from the figure of 99 that officials gave Thursday afternoon.

"We will continue search and rescue, because we still have hope we will find people alive," Levine Cava said at a news conference Friday morning.

Three of the four victims have been identified, according to Dr. Emma Lew, director of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department. One victim died at a hospital. No other information was provided.

Two victims were being treated at Jackson Health System hospital, a spokesperson said.

About 55 of the 136 units at the building a few miles north of Miami Beach collapsed at around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, leaving huge piles of rubble on the ground and materials dangling from what remained of the structure, officials said.

Since then, numerous search and rescue personnel have been scouring the rubble, including from the surface, with search dogs, sonar and cameras.

Structural engineers also have been shoring up other places -- such as areas near a parking garage underneath the rubble -- to allow crews to tunnel underneath with light machinery.

A boy was rescued alive from the rubble early Thursday, a witness said.Another 35 were rescued from standing portions of the building by first responders, Jadallah said Thursday.

The cause of the collapse wasn't immediately known.

Rescuers on Friday will use heavy machinery to pull "some of the superficial metal from above," which will help identify voids where survivors could be, Jadallah said Friday morning.

"As we move through the building, we constantly monitor, making sure that there's no movement, every piece of rubble that we move, we have to take, make efforts to stabilize the building, inch by inch," Miami-Dade Fire Rescue District Chief Jason Richard told CNN.

Officials don't know how many people were in the building

Florida State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said the search involved "that delicate balance of saving lives while risking lives," with the accumulation of water used to extinguish fires adding dangerous weight to the unstable remains of the buildings.

Crews were taking down license plate numbers of cars in the parking garage in an attempt to determine who was in the building, Patronis said.

Surfside Town Manager Andy Hyatt said officials do not know how many people were in the building at the time of the collapse.

"We know that it was about 80% occupied but that doesn't mean that there was 80% occupied with people," he told CNN Friday.

"We know that some families around here travel quite a bit."

Hyatt said the town's building official had been on the roof of the tower -- where work was being done -- and that "it was fine."

The building's residents reflected South Florida's international and cultural mix, with affluent families from Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia and a tight-knit Jewish community.

Kevin Spiegel said his wife, Judy, is among the missing. He said he was out of town at the time of the collapse.

"She's just the most amazing person in the world and we would do anything to have her back," he told CNN, his two sons -- Michael and Josh -- at his side.

President Joe Biden on Friday approved an emergency declaration for the state, making federal aid available to Florida -- including equipment and other resources -- and authorizing FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

Engineers weigh in on the collapse

Although the cause of the partial collapse wasn't known, some engineers who saw it on video shared their expertise with CNN on why the building fell the way it did.

Greg Batista, a structural engineer who did work on the building years ago, said concrete repair and a spalling problem can cause collapses.

Spalling can occur when part of the surface of the concrete peels, breaks or chips.

"Spalling can get to a point that, if not repaired, it can lead to eventual collapse, and I've been to places where there have been collapses of floors, of beams, of columns," Batista said.

Batista noted that for that type of collapse to occur, the malfunction of one column is enough to bring a structure down.

"All it takes is one column, and everything can come down like a Jenga," he said. "After having seen the video ... you see the actual building coming down, and the actual collapse begins on one of the lower floors. So immediately, I see that something happened down there."

Another structural engineer, Kit Miyamoto, who is California's seismic safety commissioner, echoed Batista's take.

"This collapse is a real classic ... column failure, which means the building itself was supported by a series of pillars. If the pillars fail, everything fails. So that's exactly what looked like that," Miyamoto told CNN.

Batista offered a glimmer of hope for those unaccounted for, saying it's entirely possible for more people to be rescued.

"If you go back to videos of building crumbling in the past, you've seen miracles of babies being pulled out of small voids either the day after or the week after. There's certainly a possibility that this can happen here," Batista said.

Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for the association of residents at the condo, said the building had "thorough engineering inspections over the last several months" in preparation for compliance with a 40-year certification.

The building was constructed in 1981, according to online Miami-Dade property records. Building standards were strengthened after highly destructive Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"What that tells you is.... nothing like this was foreseeable, at least it wasn't seen by the engineers who were looking at the building from a structural perspective," Direktor told CNN.

An engineer had already conducted inspections to determine needed repairs, but the only work that had actually commenced was on the roof, Direktor said.

Shimon Wdowinski, a professor with Florida International University's Institute of Environment, told CNN he determined in a study last year that the Champlain Towers South condo showed signs of sinking in the 1990s.

The condo had a "subsidence" rate of about 2 millimeters a year from 1993 to 1999, according to his study, first reported by USA Today.

While Wdowinski said this sinking alone would likely not cause the condo's collapse, he said it could be a contributing factor.

"If one part of the building moves with respect to the other, that could cause some tension and cracks," he explained.

The professor said buildings in other areas had moved at higher rates, and he didn't find the condo building's movement unusual.

"What's unusual is that today it collapsed," he said.

What we know about those unaccounted for

At least 30 people believed to be missing are from several Latin American countries, according to officials from the respective countries.

At least nine are from Argentina.

They included Andrés Galfrascoli, 45, his partner Fabián Nuñez, 55, and their daughter, Sofía Galfrascoli Núñez, 6, according to a friend. The group was staying at a friend's condo for vacation.

"We don't know anything, we don't have any closure and that's what hurts," friend Nicolás Fernández told CNN.

Six Paraguayans, including the sister of Paraguayan First Lady Silvana López Moreira, the brother-in-law and their three children are still unaccounted for.

The first lady's relatives live on the 10th floor of the partially collapsed building, and Paraguay's ministry of external relations has not been able to locate the family, the ministry told CNN en Español.

Officials representing Uruguay and Venezuela also reported missing citizens, and at least six Colombians resided in the building, authorities said.

More locally, the family of a mother and grandmother who were in the section of the building that collapsed haven't heard from them, the son, Pablo Rodriguez, told CNN.

"We are praying for a miracle, but at the same time trying to be as realistic about it as possible," he said. "Until we definitely know, there is hope. It's just dwindling by the minute."

Some members from the Shul of Bal Harbour synagogue are also among those unaccounted for, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar told CNN.

"This is something that transcends our capacity for understanding," Lipskar said about the collapse. "It's a reality, we accept it and we have to learn as we do in our culture of resilience to move forward."

Rabbi Eliot Pearlson, who leads Temple Menorah, told CNN's Chris Cuomo, "It's hard to explain. This doesn't happen in America. It's doesn't happen in Miami Beach. It doesn't happen in our homes. And it's very difficult to comprehend how it's possible."

Pearlson said he saw people come together in compassion following the collapse, and his temple will host an emergency prayer service on Friday.

Three generations of one family from his temple among the unaccounted, he said.

"I have to tell you, when I walked past ground zero, there was row after row after row of firefighters who are literally waiting to rush into a building that could fall at any time," he added.

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