MIAMI (REUTERS, AFP) - The death toll from the collapse of a Miami oceanfront apartment block has risen to three, ABC News reported, and nearly 100 people remained unaccounted for as rescue workers continued their search for survivors in the rubble.
US President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.
“The President’s action authorises the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts,” the White House said on Friday (June 25).
Rescue crews picked through tons of rubble on Thursday looking for survivors.
Search teams detected sounds of banging and other noises but no voices coming from the mounds of debris hours after a large section of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, a barrier island town across Biscayne Bay from the city, crumbled to the ground, authorities said.
Footage captured by a security camera nearby showed an entire side of the building crumbling in two sections, one after the other, throwing up clouds of dust at about 1:30 am (0530 GMT) on Thursday.
What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to cave in within seconds was not immediately known, although local officials said the 12-storey tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters on Thursday 99 people remained unaccounted for some 18 hours after the collapse, though some may not have been in the building at the time.
Another 102 individuals whose whereabouts were initially unknown have since been located and “declared safe,” she said.
A fire official said earlier that 35 people were evacuated from the portion of the high-rise left standing, and response teams using trained dogs and drones in the search pulled two individuals from the rubble. One of them was dead.
ABC News later reported that at least three people had died in the disaster, citing a county official.
Officials said the complex, built in 1981, was going through a re-certification process requiring repairs, with another building under construction on an adjacent site.
The Champlain Towers South had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It had been subject to various inspections recently due to the re-certification process and the adjacent building construction, Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told Local 10.
Ms Jenny Urgelles woke up to the news that her parents’ building had collapsed. She called them, but both their phones went straight to voicemail, she told WSVN 7 News.
“I am holding on to hope. I very desperate to know what’s happening,” she told the local Fox affiliate.
Footage from WPLG Local 10, a Miami TV station, showed a rescue team pulling a boy from piles of debris and rebar, and firefighters using ladder trucks to rescue residents trapped on balconies.
The search effort was slowed by at least one fire that burned at the site as emergency crews doused the rubble with water, local media reported.
At least six Paraguayan nationals were among those unaccounted for, Paraguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, including the sister of Paraguay’s First Lady, the sister’s husband Luis Pettengill and their three children.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said construction work was being done on the roof of the Champlain Towers South but there was no indication that it caused the collapse.
“It’s hard to imagine how this could have happened,” Mr Burkett told reporters. “Buildings just don’t fall down.”
Mr Burkett said that part of the building with balconies facing the beach collapsed, with one floor appearing to have fallen atop another, cascading down.
“The back of the building, probably a third or more, is totally pancaked,” he said.
Resident Barry Cohen and his wife were rescued from the building.
“At first it sounded like a flash of lightning or thunder,” Mr Cohen, a former vice-mayor of Surfside and a resident of the building, told reporters at the scene. “But then it just kept on - steadily for at least 15 to 30 seconds – it just kept on going and going and going."
Mr Cohen also said there had been construction for more than a month on the building’s roof.
Mr Santo Mejil, a local resident, said his wife was an overnight caretaker who was in the complex when it collapsed.
"She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake," he told the Miami Herald newspaper, tearing up as his wife called again to say she was being evacuated from the complex.
The Miami-Dade Police have assumed control of the investigation. More than 80 fire and rescue units responded, the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department wrote in a Twitter message early Thursday.