On June 24, 2021, at about 1:30 a.m. EDT, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story oceanfront
condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, United States, partially collapsed. At least five people have died and eleven others have been injured as a result of the collapse. About 35 people have been rescued from the uncollapsed portion of the building, two people have been rescued from the rubble, and 156 people remain missing as rescue operations continue.
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The residential building, Champlain Towers South, is located at 8777 Collins Avenue (Florida State Road A1A). It was built in 1981 by developer Nathan Reiber and is part of a complex along with two other buildings, one built at the same time and called Champlain Towers North, and the other built between the North and South buildings in 1994 and called Champlain Towers East.
All three are L-shaped structures with 12 stories, but as of 2021 the South building contained the most units at 136.
The buildings are just north of North Beach Oceanside Park, which is located in Miami Beach’s North Beach neighborhood.
The project was the first new construction in Surfside following a moratorium on new development imposed by Miami-Dade County due to water and sewer infrastructure problems in Surfside during the 1970s. The developers paid the city $200,000 in 1979 to fund replacement of the sewer system and secure approval for construction of the condos.
The Champlain Towers South building suffered a partial pancake collapse at about 1:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2021. Surveillance footage indicates that a large north-central section of the building collapsed first, which left the then-isolated northeast corner standing but unstable; it collapsed approximately nine seconds later. Of the 136 units in the building, made up of one- to four-bedroom plans ranging in size from 1,200 to 4,500 sq ft (110 to 420 m2), 55 were destroyed in the collapse.
Rescue and relief operations
More than 80 rescue units responded to the collapse, according to the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department Surfside mayor Charles Burkett said in a news conference that ten people were treated at the scene of the collapse and that two people were taken to the hospital, with one later dying. At least 35 people were rescued from the building on June 24 and as many as 159 people were unaccounted for. Miami-Dade County mayor Daniella Levine Cava signed a state of emergency declaration at 4:33 p.m. on June 24 and called on Florida governor Ron DeSantis to do so at the state level. Governor DeSantis viewed the site on the same day, and issued a state of emergency. The White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency stated that they were in contact with local officials and providing assistance after the collapse. President Joe Biden was briefed on the event, and spoke with Miami-Dade County mayor Cava.
On June 24, two FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 1 based out of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 2 based out of the Miami Fire-Rescue Department, were activated to respond to the incident. An additional three teams in Ohio and Virginia were put on alert to standby to assist.
On June 26, state officials announced that THOR, a 1,000 square foot (93 m2) mobile command center, was being deployed from Escambia County, Florida, to help coordinate search and rescue and recovery teams and operations. THOR, which includes cellular, satellite, and VOIP wireless systems and UHF and VHF radio systems, as well as built-in generators, will be deployed for at least 10 days.
In a news conference on June 26, Mayor Cava indicated that a fire deep within the rubble, and subsequent smoke, were impeding the ability of fire and rescue personnel to search for survivors. She indicated that the fire “spread laterally throughout the pile” making it difficult to isolate the source. Officials said rescue workers were also working in the tower’s underground parking garage, where there was heavy damage, under constantly changing conditions. Cava advised that “No further victims have been found, as you’ve heard. The numbers are the same as they were yesterday; 127 have been accounted for… One hundred and fifty-nine unaccounted for. Four confirmed dead.” Later that afternoon, the official toll was revised without elaboration to five dead and 156 missing.
On June 26, Surfside mayor Burkett advised residents of the Champlain Towers North building, located about 500 feet (150 m) north of the fallen structure, to evacuate with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance “pending a thorough structural investigation”, noting that the North and South buildings were constructed by the same developer at about the same time, and likely using similar plans and materials. However, Burkett did not immediately order the evacuation of the building or declare it unsafe. By late afternoon, voluntary evacuations were occurring at both Champlain Tower North and Champlain Tower East.
On June 27, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell announced that the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has significant experience with complex construction, demolition, stabilization, and forensic engineering projects, is providing assistance with rescue and recovery efforts at the site.
On the evening of June 27, Mayor Cava advised that nine people had been confirmed dead and 152 were missing.
Names of an additional four victims were released later that night, leaving only one of those confirmed dead not publicly identified. Two of the victims named were Venezuelan nationals.
At a news conference in the morning of June 28, Mayor Cava announced that an additional fatality had been confirmed, bringing the number of dead to 10, with 151 people still missing. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Ray Jadallah stressed that, despite the operation entering its fifth day, the effort is still focused on the search for and potential rescue of survivors rather than shifting to recovery. In the afternoon, Cava announced that an eleventh body had been found, reducing the number of missing to 150. The names of three additional victims were released later in the evening, leaving none of the 11 known fatalities not publicly identified. In the afternoon, Cava announced that an eleventh body had been found, reducing the number of missing to 150. The names of three additional victims were released later in the evening, making all of the 11 known fatalities then publicly identified. An international nonprofit group of volunteers trained in Israel called Cadena International (cadena being a Spanish word meaning “chain”) is assisting the rescue mission.
In a late morning of June 28 news conference, Mayor Cava reported that no more survivors or victims had yet been found, but that 210 search and rescue workers are on site, each working 12-hour shifts. Workers are being medically evaluated regularly to ensure their fitness to work at the site. A massive fire deep in the rubble pile, which had hampered search and rescue efforts since the collapse, was finally extinguished. Small, radio-controlled robots equipped with thermal sensors and 360-degree cameras were being deployed to assist in search and recovery efforts. President Biden was expected to visit the site on Thursday, July 1, having not done so earlier to avoid disrupting rescue operations. In the evening, Mayor Cava advised that 12 people had been confirmed dead and 149 were missing. Cava also said that authorities will audit the names of the missing to ensure none are duplicates, particularly because of provided Hebrew names. Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said 3,000,000 pounds (1,400,000 kilograms) of concrete had been removed from the site of the collapse. He also said rescue workers will not reenter the west section of the building facing Collins Avenue, which is still standing, because it is unstable, making it too dangerous to do so. Rescuers currently cannot enter a large area under the rubble on the eastern side of the site because of the same risk.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie and Miami-Dade Fire Chief Cominsky have requested that FEMA deploy an additional Urban Search and Rescue Task Force team, anticipating that emergency response to the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season may otherwise have an adverse impact on the number of rescue and recovery personnel available for deployment at Surfside.
An additional six bodies were found on Wednesday of June 30, including the wife and two children of a man whose body was found on June 26. This brought the death toll to 18 and reduced the number of missing to 145.
On July 1, search and rescue work was halted at the site at approximately 2:00 a.m. due to concerns that the western portion of the structure, which had not yet collapsed, was increasingly likely to do so, creating unsafe conditions for workers. President Biden visited the site after meeting with Governor DeSantis, Mayor Cava and other elected leaders in a conference room at the nearby St. Regis Bal Harbour resort. Biden suggested that the federal government could possibly cover the full cost of the rescue and recovery. Concern also mounted that Tropical Storm Elsa could make landfall in south Florida, further destabilizing the standing portion of the structure and the debris field and interfering with rescue operations. The search resumed in the early evening after a 15-hour delay, and authorities announced the identity of an additional fatality, leaving one victim publicly unidentified.
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which sent scientists and engineers to the site on June 25 under the authority of the National Construction Safety Team Act, announced that it would launch a full investigation into the collapse, with an eye to determining best practices to prevent similar disasters in the future. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the U.S. Representative from Florida’s 23rd Congressional district which includes Surfside, tweeted, “There are millions of high-rise condo units like those in Champlain Towers all across Florida. The NIST investigation is a major announcement and will be key to learning not only the cause of the tragedy in Surfside, but the potential danger posed to other structures across FL.
On July 2, the bodies of two more victims were found in the wreckage, according to comments at a morning news conference by Mayor Levine Cava, bringing the known death toll to 20. The mayor also revised the number of missing downward to 128, explaining that officials “originally received a report [regarding] a potentially missing person… That report was only marked as one person, but when the detectives were able to reach and verify… we discovered that there are in fact, several family members who could have been [ac]counted for… and now we can mark them as safe.”
Due to the large influx of search and rescue personnel, officials, and investigators from around the country and outside the US, and a resulting shortage of hotel rooms, accommodations are being provided to some workers on a cruise ship, Royal Caribbean Group’s Explorer of the Seas, docked at PortMiami.
At an evening news conference, Mayor Levine Cava announced the recovery of two additional bodies, bringing the death toll to 22. The mayor has ordered the remaining structure to be demolished as soon as it is feasible. It is unknown if residents who have been displaced from this section of the building will have any way to recover property of value. Ongoing structural engineering assessments have indicated that the still-standing portion of the structure is dangerously unstable, presenting a further hazard to residue and recovery teams working on site. However, Levine Cava noted that the demolition will “take, most likely, weeks”.
A first cousin of Chilean Air Force general Alberto Bachelet and second cousin to the general’s daughter Michelle Bachelet, who served as President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and 2014 to 2018, and his Filipino American wife, a retired senior budget officer in the International Monetary Fund, were formally identified by authorities on Friday night among four previously recovered victims.
On July 3, two more bodies were found at the site, bringing the known death toll to 24, and the number of missing was revised downward to 121. The date of the demolition of the remaining structure was brought forward, due to Tropical Storm Elsa, expected to arrive in Florida the following week. The search was suspended as a result.
Rescuers used visual searches, thermal cameras, drones, and animal traps to try to locate pets left behind in the standing portion of the building, but did not find any.
On July 4, authorities announced that the still-standing western portion of Champlain Towers South would be demolished by Controlled Demolition, Inc. between 10:00 p.m. EDT Sunday night and 3:00 a.m. EDT Monday morning, after accelerating planning and placement of explosives in the building’s foundation to complete the demolition prior to the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa. The controlled demolition was expected to cause the standing structure to collapse mostly into the current footprint of the building, with debris outside that perimeter expected to fall on the west (Collins Avenue) side to avoid disturbing the existing search and rescue zone on the east. The search for survivors of the initial collapse was set to resume almost immediately after the demolition was completed.
The demolition took place at approximately 10:30 p.m. EDT on July 4, and the search for survivors resumed 20 minutes later.
On July 6, the death toll continued to increase as workers searched portions of the rubble that they had previously not been able to access. At a morning news conference, Mayor Levine Cava said there are “only around 70 [people] that we can confirm were in the building at the time of collapse”, acknowledging doubt about the official estimate of 113 missing. Tropical Storm Elsa increased in strength in the Florida Straits north of Cuba, prompting authorities to predict that it would be a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall along Florida’s west coast.
In the late afternoon, officials announced that an additional 12 bodies had been located since the search resumed after the demolition of the western portion of the structure on Sunday, including 4 on Tuesday. This brought the death toll to 36, with as many as 109 people still considered missing. Of the 36 confirmed dead, 29 have been publicly identified.
On July 7, in a private morning briefing with families, and a later briefing for reporters, authorities announced the recovery of an additional 10 bodies, the largest number thus far found in any 24-hour period. This brought the number of known deaths to 46. According to Mayor Levine Cava, 94 were still believed missing. Miami-Dade Fire Chief Jadallah said that families of 32 of the victims have been notified, and stated that “we haven’t transitioned” to a purely recovery operation, as would occur when rescue of additional survivors was deemed no longer possible. He did note, however, that they have so far not detected any voids, or spaces, in the rubble that would be likely to shelter survivors. Tropical Storm Elsa weakened and made landfall significantly north and west of Miami, greatly reducing its impact on the ongoing operations at the site versus earlier predictions.
Later in the day, authorities announced in another private briefing for family members that operations, now in their 14th day, were shifting from search and rescue to search and recovery.
By July 9, the death toll rose to 79 after workers found an additional 15 victims. Binx, a cat who lived with the Gonzalez family on the ninth floor, was found alive.
By July 10, an additional seven victims were found, bringing the death toll to 86. 43 people remained missing.
By July 11, four more victims were found, bringing the death toll to 90, while the number of missing was revised to 31.
By July 12, four more victims were found, bringing the death toll to 94, while the number of missing was revised to 22.
By July 13, one more body was found bringing the count to 95.
By July 14, the number of missing was revised to 14. Another body was found bringing the death toll to 96.
By July 15, the total confirmed deaths rose to 97, of whom all but 7 had been positively identified. The number missing was reduced to 8.
By July 17, authorities had positively identified 95 of the 97 recovered victims.
On June 24, 2021, a lawsuit was filed by a resident of the building against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, seeking $5 million in damages “due to Defendant’s acts and omissions and their failure to properly protect the lives and property of Plaintiff and Class members”.
On June 26, Mayor Cava ordered an “immediate audit” in Miami-Dade County of all high-rise buildings older than 40 years and taller than five stories, as well as all those built by the developer of the Champlain Towers condominium complex, to be completed “within the next 30 days, starting right now”.
Scientists and engineers from the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) arrived at the site on June 25 under the authority of the National Construction Safety Team Act. Staff of the agency will decide whether NIST should launch a full investigation into the collapse and will otherwise help begin the local investigation into the causes of the disaster.
The town of Surfside announced on June 27 that it had contracted with Allyn Kilsheimer, founder and chief executive of Washington, DC-based KCE Structural Engineers, to study the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South, assess the condition of adjacent and similar buildings, and provide geotechnical and original-design evaluations. The firm was involved in the forensic analysis of the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 and the 2018 Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse. Surfside mayor Charles Burkett said that the town government would locate every document, including all correspondence sent or received, related to the Champlain Towers South building and post it on its Web site in the interest of public transparency.
In what it termed a “show of respect” for victims of the collapse and their families, the City of Miami Beach canceled its annual Fire on the Fourth festival, which was scheduled to be held only blocks away at 72nd Street and Collins Avenue at the North Beach Bandshell. Other Independence Day events were cancelled in the metro Miami area, both out of respect for those affected by the tragedy and to avoid worsening an already bad traffic situation due to road closures and detours associated with rescue efforts in Surfside.
On July 2, the Champlain Towers South condominium board issued a statement to the press following a judge’s decision directing a receiver to release emergency assistance funds to residents of the building. The full statement read, “The surviving members of the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association board have concluded that, in the best interest of all concerned parties, an independent Receiver should be appointed to oversee the legal and claims process. The collapse of Champlain Towers South is an unspeakable tragedy that has devastated our community, our neighbors, and our friends. We are grieving and our hearts ache for those who have been lost and for their families. They have our deepest condolences. Our profound gratitude goes out to the emergency rescue personnel – professionals and volunteers alike – who have been working around the clock. We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy.”
On July 5, the The New York Times published an in-depth report saying that the collapse of Champlain Towers South prompted a review of hundreds of older high-rises in Southeast Florida, as other buildings “ignored or delayed action on serious maintenance issues.” The article includes three annotated color-coded maps that show buildings that are under scrutiny due to their date of construction and their height.
On July 7, Governor DeSantis said at a press conference that condominiums in Florida are “kind of a dime a dozen, particularly in southern Florida,” but he remained non-committal with regard to state action to require that aging buildings throughout the state be recertified, saying that Champlain Towers South “had problems from the start” that merited additional study before committing to such a program. “Is this something that was unique to this building? Is it something that was unique to the person that maybe developed it — because obviously there are sister properties? Is it something that buildings of that age, that would have implications beyond that whether southern Florida or the entire state of Florida? I think we need to get those definitive answers,” DeSantis said.
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