After the dust had settled and the fog of incredulity had lifted, Soriya Cohen had only prayer and hope and questions — lots of questions — about the abrupt and violent collapse of a 12-story oceanfront condominium tower in Surfside early Thursday morning.
First and foremost in Cohen’s mind was the whereabouts of her husband, Brad Cohen, whom she had not seen or heard from since part of the Champlain Towers South Condo came crashing down, wiping away 55 units in mere seconds.
Brad Cohen was inside one of those units on the 11th floor along with his brother, Gary Cohen, said Soriya Cohen, when the building collapsed at 1:23 a.m., the time that Miami-Dade Fire Rescue first responded to a call for help at the condominium tower. Soriya Cohen had spent the night with their daughter at a different building in neighboring Miami Beach.
“We can’t find him,” Soriya Cohen said Thursday afternoon, showing anyone who could help a photo of her husband that she keeps in her iPhone. She said rescuers took a DNA sample of their daughter in case they need it to identify Brad Cohen’s body.
“He hasn’t responded for 15 hours. … Maybe he’s alive, I don’t know.”
Those last three words underscored the agony shared by dozens of survivors and loved ones of the missing who gathered at the Surfside Community Center seeking answers and solace. And they echo the response of many who cannot fathom how a concrete structure housing dozens of homes could suddenly fall to the ground.
“It’s the unimaginable,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “It’s a terrible, terrible nightmare that we have here on Surfside.”
It will likely be months or even years before engineers and other experts know exactly why a part of the Champlain Towers South came crashing down.
Before those answers are found, search and rescue crews will continue the painstaking work of picking through a mountain of rubble, looking for even the faintest signs of life that might be buried inside the two-story-high pile of debris.
More than 20 hours after the partial collapse, the death toll remained unknown. Officials confirmed at least one death, and said 35 survivors were pulled from the wreckage, with 10 injured persons treated at the scene and at least two transported to a hospital.
Miami-Dade County police said as many as 99 people are reported missing. There were 102 people from the building who had been accounted for. The part of the tower that collapsed held 55 units. The remainder of the 136-unit tower remained standing, though residents have been evacuated.
The disaster occurred while most who live in the building were in bed. The tower at 8777 Collins Ave. crumpled with “a bang that just kept on going,” said former Surfside Vice Mayor Barry Cohen, who moved into a third-floor unit in the tower in June 2018.
Barry Cohen said he and his wife gathered their belongings and rushed out of their condo after they were awakened by the noise and realized what was happening. Unable to navigate through the debris, twisted metal and a flooded parking garage, the couple returned to their unit and called for help from the balcony.
The Cohens and their two neighbors waited 20 minutes before firefighters rescued them from their balcony with a cherry picker bucket.
“I was worried it was all going to go down,” Barry Cohen said.
Security camera footage of the collapse looked eerily similar to a controlled demolition, minus the flash of explosives. One side of the tower buckled first before more of the structure collapsed into a pile of rubble. The cause of the collapse is unknown, though one building expert deemed it “an oddity of biblical proportions” for the 40-year-old structure to fall unexpectedly.
A different expert, John Pistorino, who has a 50-year career as a consulting engineer in Miami, said such a collapse “should never happen.”
“It is so dramatically unusual that it’s hard to compare to anything other than a building going down in a city in a state of war,” said Pistorino, who played a key role in drafting the county’s 40-year building recertification policy and other building safety rules. Champlain Towers South was in the early stages of its 40-year recertification.
‘There’s a lot of uncertainty’
In a scene reminiscent of 9/11, evacuees and family and friends of residents gathered at the nearby Surfside Community Center, many carrying photos of missing loved ones. More than 700 missing-person reports came in to a Miami-Dade hot line and web page set up to track victims of the collapse, according to the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
Levine Cava, the county mayor, said in an evening video briefing with county commissioners that the count of missing people remains an estimate. She said “102 people who were in the building have been accounted for.”
“Unfortunately,” Levine Cava added, “99 at least are unaccounted for. Some of those may not have been in the building.”
Sergio Barth, a Doral resident, said his brother, Luis Fernando Barth, was visiting South Florida from Colombia with his wife and 14-year-old daughter to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The family was staying in a friend’s condo at Champlain Towers South.
“Early this morning I heard on Colombian radio that a building had collapsed in Surfside, and I knew the area,” Barth said, “and I started putting the dots together.”
Barth soon discovered that his brother and family are among the missing.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said, “no useful information right now.”
As news of the collapse spread across the globe, relief organizations and others launched efforts to support those who were forced to flee their homes with little or no belongings. An online donation fund for victims and families, set up by the Shul of Bal Harbour, had raised more than $160,000 from more than 1,300 donors as of Thursday afternoon.
Others who jumped in to help include the Miami Heat, the Miami Heat Charitable Fund, the Coral Gables Community Foundation, the Key Biscayne Community Foundation and the Miami Foundation, working together to build a hardship fund.
The disaster has united hundreds of strangers seeking to help, said Ryan Mermer, a member of the Shul who started a WhatsApp group chat to rally the community and collect blankets, phone chargers, sweatshirts, pain relievers, water and snacks.
“People are coming together more than ever,” Mermer said.
By Thursday evening, volunteers had put up signs outside the Surfside Community Center telling drivers to take their donations elsewhere. The family reunification center had received more than it could handle, said a volunteer with the American Red Cross.
Officials promise help, answers
Local, state and national leaders addressed the building collapse on Thursday, offering to send help and find answers.
Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer held out hope that search and rescue dogs would lead workers to survivors in the rubble. By late morning, she noted the troubling silence. “They aren’t turning up very much,” she said. “No one is celebrating anyone being pulled out.”
Salzhauer said the Champlain Towers South was undergoing the required 40-year recertification to ensure its structural integrity, and that the building’s roof was being redone. She added that a building inspector had visited Champlain Towers on Wednesday, but she did not know what the inspector found. It is unknown if any construction activity contributed to the disaster.
“The residents that I talked to were not aware that there was some kind of problem or issue that would cause something like this,” Salzhauer said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at a press conference one block away from the Champlain Towers, said he toured the scene and what he saw was worse than he had expected.
“The TV doesn’t do it justice,” DeSantis said. “It is really, really traumatic to see the collapse of a massive structure like that.”
DeSantis thanked first responders for risking their lives to search for survivors when it was unknown if the building was stable enough to enter.
He said engineers and other experts would probe the evidence to determine what went wrong.
“You’re not going to have those answers immediately,” he said.
News of the disaster also reached the White House, where President Joe Biden said he had a “long discussion” with Levine Cava, the county mayor, about the building collapse.
Biden put the onus on DeSantis to declare a state of emergency so federal resources, including FEMA help, can be deployed.
“We are ready to move federal resources immediately,” Biden said. “We can’t go in and do it but FEMA is down there taking a look at what’s needed, including whether the rest of the buildings need to be evacuated as well.”
He said federal resources could help with recovery, cleanup and shelter for families who were displaced.
“I’m waiting for the governor to declare an emergency,” Biden said. “We’re working on it, and I made it clear, I say to the people of Florida: Whatever help you want that the federal government can provide, we’re waiting. Just ask us, we’ll be there. We’ll be there.”
DeSantis signed an emergency declaration early Thursday evening.
‘Cries for help’ and an eerie premonition
As help begins to pour in for victims and families of the collapse, survivors of the disaster and their loved ones relayed the details of their traumatizing experiences.
Adriana Chi was waiting outside Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center in Miami early Thursday, worried about two relatives inside and a third she had yet to locate.
Chi said her brother, sister-in-law and teenage niece lived in a ninth floor unit of the Champlain Towers South. Chi was able to speak with her niece ahead of her emergency surgery at Ryder, and she said the 16-year-old recalled being awakened by her mother and a shaking building before the floor gave way beneath them.
“She felt the building shake,” said Chi, a nurse practitioner. “Then everything collapsed.”
Chi said her sister-in-law, a psychologist, was taken to Ryder as well but that she did not know the whereabouts of her brother, an attorney. Chi said her father has owned the unit in Champlain Towers South for about 30 years, and that leaks were a chronic problem.
Between tearful cellphone calls in the hospital’s driveway and hugs with other family members gathered outside, Chi recalled an eerie premonition she had shared with her brother.
“The last time I was there, I looked at him and I said, ‘I am serious. This building is going to collapse.’ ”
Alfredo Lopez, who lived in a sixth-floor corner unit with his wife and son, said he awoke to a series of loud booms that shook his bed and startled his family. They evacuated the building with a group, making their way out through a crack in a crumbling wall near the crumpled pool deck, where Lopez and others could hear what they could not see through the thick cloud of dust.
“Exiting the pool area, I could hear people crying and screaming for help,” Lopez said.
A desperate rescue scene
The massive search-and-rescue effort began before dawn. Rescuers from Miami-Dade’s Urban Search and Rescue Team worked quickly to free residents from the warped steel and concrete that trapped them in their homes, sometimes cutting through balconies to reach survivors in the part of the structure that was still standing.
At an evening press conference, Miami-Dade’s mayor emphasized the rescue operation was proceeding overnight — and that images of a seemingly idle scene didn’t always capture the intensity of efforts below the surface.
“We are working round the clock,” said Levine Cava, who oversees county fire and police agencies. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami-Dade, also touched on complaints that efforts weren’t moving quickly enough.
“Sometimes when you watch it on television, it can be hard to ask for patience in a time like this,” he said.
Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez, the county’s police director, said his agency’s victim coordinators were helping counsel relatives of the missing, including those frustrated by the rescue pace.
“This is a slow process. We understand their pain,” he said. Ramirez said with rescue crews often underneath the rubble, the scene can look misleadingly quiet on television. “They don’t see from above what’s really going on,” he said.
Jose “Pepe” Diaz, chairman of the county commission, said the rescue operation will continue until “the moment hope is gone.”
“They’re working hard — hard,” he said. “They’re taking every precaution. And they hope and pray.”
Levine Cava visited the family reunification center at about 9:30 p.m. The center on 93rd street was still active, with tables of food, sweet snacks and drinks. In one of the rooms, families sat in front of a TV playing footage of the collapse. The mayor thanked volunteers and spoke to family members, urging them to be patient as rescue workers search for survivors.
“We are coming to an end of the first day,” Levine Cava. “There is still hope.”
For family members of those who survived, news of their loved one’s rescue felt like divine intervention.
Santo Mejil, 50, said he was awakened by a predawn call from his wife, who was inside a unit on the ninth floor of the collapsed south condo. She is an overnight caretaker for an elderly disabled woman.
“She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake,” Mejil said.
As he recounted rushing over to the beach from their home near Miami International Airport, Mejil’s cellphone rang. It was his wife.
“They’re bringing you down?” he said. Tears welled in his eyes. “Thank God.”
As the sun rose, the rescues got trickier. A mother and child were pulled from the rubble, but the mother’s leg had to be amputated to free her, said Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management.
Just after 8 a.m., Rollason told the Miami Herald that emergency workers believed they had cleared all easily reachable survivors from inside the tower.
“Everyone who is alive is out of the building,” he said.
One of the search-and-rescue dogs detected someone trapped under a mountain of concrete around that time. Officials first believed the trapped person was a child but later identified her as an adult woman.
Rollason said they lost voice contact with her shortly after, but they had not given up on the rescue effort.
“We’re still working on getting to her,” he said.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokeswoman Maggie Castro said more than 80 rescue units from all over the county rushed to the initial scene. Well into the morning she said the department was in “100% rescue mode.”
She said the department used dogs and sensitive microphones and cameras that can pick up the slightest sounds, even breathing. But even with the most advanced technology, she added that only so many rescuers could sift through the wreckage at one time because they were uncertain about the stability of the debris.
“We have weather to contend with and we have the danger of the building,” Castro said. “We’re very careful not to disturb the pile.”
The equipment used by search and rescue teams is so sensitive Castro said, “that we would even be able to hear people scratching.”
How many missing?
Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul said authorities are compiling a list of residents who remain unaccounted for following the tower’s collapse.
A Realtor with COMPASS who has multiple listings in the building told the Herald about 70% of the 136 units were occupied at the time by primary or secondary homeowners. It’s unclear how many other units were in use for short-term rentals.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said authorities are compiling names called into Surfside’s missing persons hotline.
“I think we’re trying to piece together who’s missing by tallying up those calls,” he said.
Burkett said the building manager does not keep a log of residents, but logs visitors. First responders were using the list to try and account for the missing.
Dozens gathered at the town’s community center, where the Red Cross was assisting those who were waiting to hear about missing loved ones. Evacuees of nearby condo towers and hotels, who were hoping for information on a place to stay and how to gather their belongings, also filled the community center.
Rollason said the building to the south, which is newer, is far enough away that it appears to be fine for now. The building on the north, he said, is older and has been evacuated. The Solara Surfside hotel, which is next to the tower, has also been evacuated.
Some residents said they have lived in the condominium complex for decades and never had any significant problems with the structure until construction began on a new building just south of Champlain Towers South. The construction caused tenants to complain about shaking last year, said Norma Arbide, who has lived in the complex since 1987.
The new building is located in Miami Beach, not Surfside, and Arbide said her neighbors were complaining because, “Their building was shaking and vibrating when they were digging and blasting at the construction site. That could have caused cracks or some kind of damage.”
Burkett, the Surfside mayor, noted that the building is not as old as many in the surrounding area, and that “there is no reason for a building to come down like that.” There are one-foot gaps between stories where there used to be 10, he said.
“This doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’ve been here my whole life, and I haven’t seen anything like this happen.”
When asked if he believed the collapse was an accident, Burkett wouldn’t hazard a guess.
“What I can say is that a building has fallen down …. I expect that this building is not salvageable at this point.”
He said there had been construction work on the building’s roof over the last 30 days, and that, “We’re certainly going to look at that.”
Peter Dyga, president and CEO of a Florida chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction trade association, called the partial collapse at the Champlain Towers “an oddity of biblical proportions.”
“People have to remember, there are thousands of buildings of this height or taller in South Florida, millions worldwide … This does not happen. Clearly, something was wrong,” Dyga said.
“We need to find what happened and make sure if there was any kind of negligence we hold people accountable,” Dyga said.
Dyga urged Floridians not to jump to conclusions as investigators assess architectural plans, engineering calculations, construction materials, and maintenance records to try to determine what went wrong.
“This is going to be probably multiple years in trying to figure out what happened here. There are so many variables,” he said. “It’s probably more than likely going to be a combination of bad things.”
To Floridians living in other high-rise condos, Dyga stressed calm. “People do not have to worry about their building falling down,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas, Charles Rabin, Alex Harris, Linda Robertson, Mary Ellen Klas, Sarah Blaskey, Martin Vassolo and David J. Neal contributed to this story, as did McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Alex Daugherty and Alex Roarty.