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Officials: Smoldering files hampering rescue ops at collapsed Fla. condo

By Sommer Brokaw, Don Jacobson & Allen Cone
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Officials: Smoldering files hampering rescue ops at collapsed Fla. condo
Rescue workers get ready for another shift working on the partially collapsed building in Surfside, Florida, on Friday. Photo By Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

June 26 (UPI) -- Five people have been confirmed dead in the aftermath of the collapse of a condominium complex in Florida, Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava announced Saturday.

Four of the victims were identified, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. At least 156 people remained unaccounted for and 130 others were accounted for as crews continue to search after more than half the building, about 55 units, collapsed.

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Crews were able to contain fires burning beneath the rubble as Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said during a news conference Saturday night crews will be able to continue search-and-rescue efforts more efficiently.

"One of the most difficult situations: the type of collapse itself, and what we've been dealing with and going through the debris and trying to find voids and looking for opportunities for survivors," he said.

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"They have not stopped, and today, our search-and-rescue teams found another body," said Levine Cava.

Earlier Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the fires had picked up in intensity since Thursday's collapse in Surfside, Fla.

"If you were there the morning after, you didn't see it smoldering like it is now," DeSantis told reporters. "The stench is very thick, and it obviously has created quite an obstacle."

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"We're using everything possible to address this fire," Levine Cava said, noting that the source of the flames was "very deep" within the rubble and "extremely difficult to locate."

"We're using infrared technology, we're using foam ... we're using water and all the tactics we can to contain the fire," she said.

Rescue operations continued through the night into Saturday to search for survivors with cautious optimism.

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Crews have been searching through the rubble since the sudden collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers in Surfside, about 3 miles north of Miami Beach.

DeSantis told CNN Saturday local and state officials are hoping for additional rescues but "we are bracing for some bad news just given the destruction that we are seeing."

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett added that the building was undergoing roof work, but it's unknown whether that was a factor in the collapse.

"This is a horrific catastrophe," Burkett told CNN. "In the United States, buildings just don't fall down."

The Investigation continues into the cause of the collapse.

The building's condo association was getting ready to make updates and repairs on the building, which has deteriorated over the years leading to extensive inspections, ABC News reported.

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The roof was undergoing work and the construction projects nearby led to scrutiny, the broadcaster reported.

Kenneth Direktor, a lawyer for the condo association, said there were signs of water damage to the complex, but oceanfront properties often have that, and that alone would not have caused the collapse.

Direktor added that when a 2015 lawsuit was filed over water damage and cracks on the outside wall of the building engineers were hired for the inspection process.

Engineers had pointed out "major structural damage," including evidence of flooding, cracking and corrosion, in a 2018 survey report. The report noted columns in the condo's garage needed to be replaced, according to ABC News and CNN.

Levine Cava said Saturday that city officials will conduct audits of all buildings 40 years and older.

"We want to make sure that every building has completed their recertification process, and we want to move swiftly to remediate any issues that may have been identified in that process," she told reporters.

Surfside's building official, James "Jim" McGuinness, said at an emergency meeting with town leaders Friday he was inspecting the roof anchors for cleaning the windows on the side of the building 14 hours before the collapse.

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There was "no inordinate amount of equipment or materials" that would cause the building to fall, McGuinness said regarding the roof anchors at the emergency meeting.

The building was due for 40-year recertification this year, he confirmed, although he did not give an exact date.

McGuinness added that a geotechnical profile below ground is not required in the 40-year recertification when asked about the possibility of a sinkhole at the meeting.

Though it's unknown whether or not there was a sinkhole, "it's not just what's happening above ground, it's what's happening below ground that counts," McGuinness said.

Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said that the requirements for the recertification process need to increase, including the time frame and a geotechnical profile below ground.

The North Tower, also built in 1981 by the same company, is located a block away, and Burkett said those residents should be relocated out of an abundance of caution.

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