Nearly two weeks after the collapse of a 12-story beachfront condo in Surfside, Fla., officials made the decision Wednesday to cease search and rescue operations, putting an end to the hopes of finding survivors beneath the rubble.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava made the grim announcement at a press conference Wednesday afternoon after informing families of the decision.
“It is with profound sadness that this afternoon I am able to share that we made the extremely difficult decision to transition from operation search and rescue to recovery,” Cava said. The shift will occur at midnight, the mayor said, and workers would mark the change with a moment of silence after 7 p.m. local time.
The pivot from a search and rescue to search and recovery phase is meant to provide some closure to the families of nearly 100 people missing.
It will also allow workers at the site of the collapse, who had been removing debris by hand, to utilize more heavy machinery in their recovery efforts.
"They've used every possible strategy and every piece of technology available to them to find people in the rubble," Cava said. "They've used sonar, cameras, dogs, heavy machinery. They've searched for void space and they've searched for victims. They ran into a building they were told could collapse."
"We've truly exhausted every option," she added.
No survivors have been pulled from the rubble since the day the building collapsed, when 37 people were taken out alive. One of the initial survivors later died at the hospital.
The official death toll increased to 54 Wednesday after eight more bodies were recovered. The number of people unaccounted for dropped to 86, a figure that has remained fluid as investigators continue to verify the list of those missing.
Rescue efforts have been complicated by weather disruptions, including Tropical Storm Elsa, which made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning. The storm, however, largely missed the Miami area without disrupting the search.
Hundreds of firefighters, as well as teams from Israel, Mexico and the Army Corps of Engineers, have been working in shifts around the clock on the pile of twisted metal and concrete, searching for signs of life.
According to officials, the rescue effort has been the largest deployment of emergency resources in the state of Florida for a non-hurricane.
"I could not be prouder of our extraordinary team," Cava said. "The men and women from here at home and around the world who've given this search everything they have day in and day out."
So far, it’s unclear what caused the collapse of the 40-year-old building known as Champlain Towers South. Newly released documents showed that an engineering firm warned of "major structural damage" and the potential for "exponential damage" in 2018.
Sea level rise due to climate change is also being eyed as a contributing factor.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said that engineers continue to assess the structural integrity of Champlain Towers North, which sits a block away from its collapsed twin.
Alternative housing options have been offered to residents of Champlain Towers North, but a mandatory evacuation has not yet been ordered.
For Burkett, who had expressed hope someone might be found alive weeks after the collapse, the formal transition to a recovery effort was particularly hard.
"Today's news is extremely tough for all of our search and rescue professionals, all of our support staff, and especially me," Burkett said. "The announcement today comes as the result of a consensus by those closest to the rescue efforts that the possibility of someone still alive is near zero. They are probably right, but in the end, god is still in charge. And while there seems to be no chance of finding life in the rubble, a miracle is still possible."
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