The Miami tower collapse: a tragedy in slow motion

‘The search for answers is not moving nearly fast enough’

First responders searching debris for signs of life
First responders searching debris for signs of life after the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, on 1 July
(Image credit: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

At least one person has died and nearly 100 are missing following the collapse of a high-rise residential building in Florida in the early hours yesterday.

An estimated 55 of a total 136 apartments crashed to the ground at around 1.30am on Thursday local time, according to officials. Emergency services are continuing to hunt for survivors buried in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South residential complex in Surfside, a coastal town about 15 miles north of Miami.

What happened?

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Exactly what caused the “40-year-old high-rise to tumble into a heap in a matter of seconds was not immediately known”, Reuters reports, but “local officials said the 12-story tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs”.

Officials confirmed that the complex, built in 1981, was in the middle of a “recertification process requiring repairs”, the news agency adds. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters that “there were structural issues, obviously”.

CCTV footage from the scene shows a progressive collapse, with upper floors falling in on the levels below, bringing down the entire southeast corner of the building.

USA Today reports that a 2020 study by a researcher at Florida International University had found that the building had “been sinking at an alarming rate since the 1990s” and was “unstable”.

Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the university’s Department of Earth and Environment, said: “I looked at it this morning and said, ‘Oh my god.’ We did detect that. It was a by-product of analysing the data. We saw this building had some kind of unusual movement.”

‘Like an earthquake’

A resident in the collapsed complex, Barry Cohen, told Sky News that he and his wife had been woken by what “he thought was a crack of lightning”. After opening the front door of their apartment, they found “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around”, said Cohen, a former deputy mayor of Surfside.

The couple, who were rescued by fire services after shouting for help, claim to have “raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked paving on the pool deck”, the broadcaster reports.

Another local told how he first heard about the collapse from his wife, who was working working as an aide for an elderly resident in the complex. Santo Mejil told the Miami Herald that his wife, who was later rescued, had called him saying that she had “heard a big explosion” and that “it felt like an earthquake”.

Miami building collapse

(Image credit: Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images)

A resident of a neighbouring complex told CBS Miami that “the building shook and then I looked out the window and you couldn't see”. The unnamed witness added: “I thought it was like a storm or something coming in. When the dust cleared, the back two-thirds of the building was gone, it was down to the ground.”

What next?

More than 100 people have been rescued from the rubble, but around the same number remain unaccounted for, according to officials. Exactly how many people were inside the building when it fell is unclear.

Rescue teams are using “sonar and search cameras, as well as specially trained dogs”, the BBC reports. Miami-Dade fire chief Raide Jadallah has warned that the process has to be “slow and methodical”, however, owing to the risks involved in shifting the rubble.

Miami’s fire marshal, Jimmy Patronis, told reporters that “rescuers are hearing sounds from the rubble”, says The Guardian. But “it’s kind of hit or miss”, Patronis added.

Witness Nicholas Balboa told CNN how he had alerted emergency crews after seeing a boy’s fingers sticking out of the debris shortly after the collapse. “I could see his hand and his fingers wiggling,” said Balboa. The child, who was under a mattress and bed frame, was subsequently pulled out alive.

Relatives of the many people still missing have congregated at a community centre a few blocks from the collapsed building to await further information.

Police have also launched a homicide inquiry, according to Sally Heyman, a county commissioner who represents the area.

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