By Madeline Holcombe and Amir Vera, CNN
Rescue crews have recovered 97 bodies from the rubble of the Surfside, Florida, building collapse; and though they have made great progress, there is still more work to be done.
Ninety-two victims in the collapse have been identified and 92 families have been notified, according to a Thursday news release from the Miami-Dade Mayor’s Office.
“At this step in the recovery process it has become increasingly difficult to identify victims, and we are relying heavily on the work of the medical examiner’s office and the scientific, technical process of identifying human remains,” a news release said. “This work becomes more difficult with the passage of time although our teams are working as hard and as fast as they can.”
Moving forward the county says it will only be reporting the number of victims who have been identified, “out of respect for the families who are still waiting and to ensure we are reporting the most accurate possible numbers.”
The remains of Champlain Towers South, once too risky for heavy machinery and threatened by the remaining structure looming over rescuers, is now nearly level to the ground as excavators remove piles of debris.
According to Miami-Dade County, more than 22 million pounds of concrete and debris have been removed.
The Miami-Dade Police Department identified six additional victims of the collapse Thursday:
- Maria Notkin, 81
- Michelle Anna Pazos, 23
- Mihai Radulescu, 82
- Valeria Barth, 14
- Miguel Leonardo Kaufman, 65
- Rosa Saez, 70
Notkin, Pazos, Radulescu and Kaufman were recovered Friday. Valeria and Saez were recovered Sunday, MDPD said.
“On the original collapse site we are almost at the bottom,” Alvaro Zabaleta, MDPD police spokesperson, told CNN. “Does that mean we are almost done with the search? No. Until we clear the entire site and find no more human remains we are not done.”
Although there is no longer hope of finding survivors in the rubble, crews have been working nearly non-stop since the collapse on June 24, aside from intermittent issues related to dangerous conditions brought by weather and shifting debris.
Officials in the area promised victims’ families to work diligently until all of their loved ones are recovered, a task that is becoming more time sensitive.
“The process of making identifications has become more difficult as time goes on,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. “We must rely heavily on the work of the medical examiner’s office … to identify human remains. The process is very methodical and it’s careful and it does take time,” she said.
In the search, 240 people are accounted for, 97 victims have been recovered, 90 of which have been identified and 88 next of kin have been notified, a release from Miami-Dade County said. Eight people remain unaccounted for, and all of them have open missing persons reports with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
The site has been both a place of taxing work and solemn reunion.
The tragedy has affected victims from multiple Latin American countries, including Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Surfside — a small, eclectic town of about 6,000 people — is also home to a large population of Orthodox Jews. Following the collapse when families were reuniting, it was common to hear a mix of conversations in Hebrew, Spanish, English and Portuguese.
The diverse community came together, attempting to grasp for strength in faith. Synagogues and churches opened their arms for emergency prayer services after the collapse. Vigils were held for the missing, and many prayed, sobbed and hugged with the tower’s ruins visible in the background.
“It is obvious that this has become more than a collapsed building site. It’s a holy site,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said earlier this week.
Frantic 911 calls from the first moments of the collapse
The 911 calls during the first moments of the deadly collapse reveal chaos and confusion among residents and witnesses as the building came down.
“It seems like something underground, everything exploded,” one caller told dispatchers, adding that it seemed like an earthquake.
Another caller, who told dispatchers they were in a parking garage, begged for help.
“I know the police are here already. Can somebody help me get out please?” the caller pleaded. “I was able to escape, but I’m outside in the parking lot. If the building comes down, it will come down on my head.”
One caller told dispatchers their sister lived in the building, but was confused as to what happened and how people would get rescued.
“I don’t know if something happened to it, but half of the building’s not there anymore,” the caller said. “There’s two people, they are, they’re alive but it, they can’t get out because there’s no building on the other side of their apartment.”
CNN obtained and transcribed these frantic phone calls about three weeks after Champlain Towers South came down.
Collapse spurs reviews of building safety
The deadly collapse has spurred reviews of building safety across South Florida, as officials and residents scramble to figure out the vulnerability of aging structures.
Miami-Dade requires building owners to hire an engineer to inspect their structures every 10 years after they turn 40 — a requirement first passed after a collapse of a Miami office building in 1974 that killed seven people. Champlain Towers South was set to hit that 40-year mark this year.
The latest city to conduct a review is Boca Raton — a city with a population of close to 100,000 — where Mayor Scott Singer said Tuesday his city council is planning to institute a building recertification process that is similar to protocols in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
But Singer noted that there will be key differences, including a shorter timeline to recertify buildings and greater reporting requirements.
The mayor added that officials are considering requiring buildings to be recertified after 30 years or fewer, but the details will be discussed further in the next few weeks as the city council introduces the measure.
“Our staff has been doing comprehensive inventory of our buildings. But not to serve only family residences but also our commercial buildings to figure out what’s the most appropriate,” Singer said at the live-streamed town meeting Tuesday. “I thought it was very important that we be proactive, that we put in more stringent requirements, and we ensure people that we’re taking greater steps for their safety.”
Boca Raton is located 38 miles up the Atlantic Coast from Surfside.
Shortly after the collapse, Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade County mayor, said officials will be reviewing buildings over 40 years old and more than five stories tall, “making sure everything is in order” with proper certification.
In nearby Sunny Isles Beach, Vice Mayor Larisa Svechin said inspections on older condo buildings would start immediately.
And the city of Miami sent a letter to buildings urging new inspections for those more than six stories tall and more than 40 years old.
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CNN’s Aya Elamroussi, Tina Burnside, Kelsie Smith, Rebekah Riess and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.