SURFSIDE, FLORIDA (REUTERS) - Rescue-and-recovery teams resumed picking through the rubble of a partially collapsed Florida condominium complex on Thursday (July 1), nearly 15 hours after the search for scores of victims believed buried in the rubble a week ago was suspended for safety concerns.
The renewed search effort began, apparently on a limited basis, shortly after a visit to the site by US. President Joe Biden, who pledged federal assistance and offered comfort to the families of those killed and missing in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, travelled to Florida to reprise the role of "consoler-in-chief" a week after the 12-storey Champlain Towers South partially caved in as residents slept.
The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the recovery of six more victims whose deaths were confirmed on Wednesday, including two children, aged 4 and 10, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on Thursday.
Another 145 people remained missing and feared trapped in the heaps of pulverised concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal.
Cava announced that the search of the mounds of rubble restarted at about 4.45pm local time once authorities determined that it was safe to do so.
The operation, which had continued around the clock since shortly after the collapse, was paused at about 2am on Thursday when movement detected in the debris field raised concerns that a portion of the high-rise still standing might collapse onto search teams.
Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said search teams would confine their work to three of nine grid areas in the ruins.
"Additional engagement in other grids will be reassessed in future operational periods," Cominsky said.
The mayor, too, citing ongoing uncertainty over structural integrity of the site, said, "we’re continuing to restrict access to the collapse zone."
It was unclear, however, whether areas reopened to the search were smaller than before operations were halted.
Biden acknowledged that hopes of finding any survivors dimmed with each passing day, but said it was possible someone might still be pulled out alive.
"Hope springs eternal," he said at a news conference at the nearby St. Regis hotel after meeting privately with affected families and before viewing flowers and posters woven into a fence as an impromptu memorial near the ruins.
"The whole nation is mourning with these families. They see it every day on television, they’re going through hell," he told reporters. "I sat with one woman who lost her husband and her little baby boy and didn’t know what to do."
Biden earlier attended a briefing with state and local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
Biden, a Democrat, told them he would deliver "whatever you need" and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.
The president also met with firefighters and other first responders who have been searching for victims at the site.
"I just wanted to say: thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," said Biden, who also appeared to refer to the people who rescued his two sons from a car crash that killed his first wife and infant daughter in 1972.
Cava said authorities were proceeding with plans to safely demolish the section of the 12-floor condo that remained standing while teams pressed on with their search efforts.
But Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) engineer Scott Nacheman said it would be "weeks before we can determine what the definitive time line is going to be."
Authorities said they have not given up all hope of finding survivors, but nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster.
Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.
"They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard, for several hours," he said. "Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore."
Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.
Fema has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams - each comprised of 80 members - to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Thursday's trip marked Biden's second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January. In February, he travelled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.
In one emotional moment of Biden’s Florida visit described by Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, the president consoled a 12-year-old girl who Burkett said had been seen praying next to the rubble for her missing father.
"The president embraced her, gave her words of comfort and was grandfatherly and wonderful to her, and it actually made her day," Burkett recounted.
Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in US history.
But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.
The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.