MIAMI—In the early hours of Thursday morning, the ocean-facing side of a 12-story condo block on the southeast Florida coastline abruptly collapsed, sending more than 50 units crashing to the ground.
The collapse in Surfside, just north of Miami Beach, left at least one person dead—though authorities are expecting many more fatalities. At least 35 people were pulled alive from the rubble.
At least 99 people living at the complex remain unaccounted for, Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez III said, adding that the rescue effort—which was impeded by a fire that broke out inside the building on Thursday afternoon—is still “in the early stages.”
“The TV doesn’t do it justice. It’s really, really traumatic,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference.
Deborah Soriano, a 58-year-old resident on the 11th floor who was awake at the time, described what she said “felt like an explosion coming from the floor.”
“I looked through the windows—there was smoke everywhere. When I tried to get outside, there was no hallway anymore. From my apartment door, I could see the sky,” she told The Daily Beast.
She said that she managed to reach emergency stairs where she found others who were stuck on the stairwell, trying to escape.
“I don’t remember how we got to the garage. I think there was a hole that was there.”
Video footage showed the horrifying moment the northeast side of Champlain Towers South Condos at 8777 Collins Avenue came tumbling down at about 1:30 a.m.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said there were 134 units in the building—“and literally half of that building is not there anymore.” The building “is literally pancaked,” he said.
Questions immediately swirled about what caused half of the building to simply crumble. The oceanfront complex, built in the 1980s, was reportedly undergoing some roof work, but it’s not clear if that played any role.
Kenneth Direktor, an attorney who represents the Champlain Towers East condominium association—the apartment owners who share ownership of the building itself—said that the structure was about to undergo a scheduled 40-year-inspection by city officials, a standard procedure required of all multi-family buildings, but there were no red flags that he knew of. (One resident said he raised concerns years ago about nearby construction possibly causing pavers on the pool deck to crack.)
“The root causes of this can’t be known at this time,” Direktor told The Daily Beast. “There is an engineering investigation going on now into how this happened. To my knowledge, there was no sign that anything like this was coming. They have had extensive engineering on the property over many, many months, and the building will be working with the city to investigate this.”
“Our only concern at this time is to account for the residents who are still missing,” he said.
One Champlain Towers South resident, who said she luckily wasn’t there last night, described the complex as “famous for being very well maintained,” and “one of the most solid buildings in Surfside.”
“The person that built the Champlains, his family owns penthouses in the building,” the resident, who declined to be identified, told The Daily Beast. “They made it really strong.”
But, the resident said the construction of an apartment building just to the south of the Champlain seemed, to her, problematic and “maybe a little bit too loose” with building practices.
“They drilled very close to [our] building,” she said. “Probably disturbed the structure. I’m sure everyone will blame everyone else.”
On Thursday afternoon, the scene was frantic at the Town of Surfside Community Center, where more than 100 residents, distraught family members, and tourists evacuated from nearby hotels have gathered.
Some at the community center were waiting for news that their loved ones made it out alive. At one point, a crowd chanted that officials weren’t doing enough, as they couldn’t see any responders at the site. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told them firefighters were digging under the rubble, searching for people “at great risk and peril” in an unstable building. She said a fire had broken out and was being extinguished.
“This is a highly volatile situation,” Cava added, at times shouting over angry family members frustrated by the lack of information about loved ones.
Ramon Ortega, 35, and Jackie Torales, 27—who were vacationing in Florida—were waiting for more information at the center. The Wisconsin residents said that around 2 a.m., they heard a rumbling sound from their room at the Bluegreen Vacations Solara Surfside Resort but thought it might be thunder. Ortega then opened his window on the sixth floor to see a chunk of the Chaplain Towers condo building in a heap of rubble on the floor.
“It was so freaking crazy,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
They were evacuated from the hotel within 30 minutes, leaving behind their wallets and personal items, as well as their rental car. All things considered, they count themselves lucky. “We’re blessed,” Torales said, adding that the hardest thing has been hearing wailing cries and seeing tears stream down the faces of others looking for lost family.
Cava said Thursday afternoon that 35 people have been removed from the building, 10 were transported to a hospital, and another two were rescued from the rubble. A spokesperson for Aventura Hospital and Medical Center told The Daily Beast that it had received three patients, two in critical and one in fair condition.
Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said rescue dogs had been brought to the scene to look for survivors, but added, “They aren’t turning up very much. No one is celebrating anyone being pulled out.”
Local resident Nicholas Balboa was walking his dog nearby when he felt the ground shake and heard “what sounded like thunder” twice in 30 seconds, he said in an interview on MSNBC. Balboa said he ran to the building and found a boy trapped in the rubble, screaming for help.
“He was sticking his arm up through the rubble trying to see if he could be seen,” Balboa said. “He was saying, ‘Can you see me? Can you see me? Please help.’”
The boy’s mother was underneath the rubble with him. “I couldn’t hear her, I couldn’t see her, I hope and pray that she’s ok,” he said.
One dramatic rescue was caught on camera: ABC News aired footage of a barely conscious boy being carried from the building wreckage.
Ray Jadallah, Miami-Dade’s assistant fire chief, estimated that around 55 apartments were destroyed or damaged.
Mayor Burkett said on Thursday afternoon that “little Surfside” couldn’t do much “except ring the alarm bell” in the wake of the collapse. Cava “sent the cavalry, as did the governor, and that has made all the difference in the world,” he said.
“They’ve got resources like you can’t believe here, we’ve got the dogs, we’ve got the equipment, and we’re going to do our very best to save as many people in that pile of rubble as we possibly can.”
Displaced residents are being moved into hotel rooms, said Cava, explaining that those affected by the collapse are also getting “help with their medicines, with blankets, with clothing, because of course they are with nothing—they were evacuated in the night.”
Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said there are “about five state agencies” working with local authorities on the investigation.
—With reporting by Philippe Naughton