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Miami building collapse death toll: Tower was ‘sinking’ for decades

There are horror scenes in Miami where a high rise tower suddenly disintegrated, but there were worrying signs before the disaster struck.

The Florida high-rise apartment building that “pancaked” while residents were sleeping overnight had been reportedly “sinking” for decades, an ominous report released before the disaster claimed.

As the search for 99 people who are missing — including a group of Australians — continues, it has also come to light that the tower was “creaking” so loudly in the days before the disaster that it was waking residents up.

The 12-story beachfront building in Miami-Dade County — which was largely reduced to rubble in a sudden collapse on Thursday local time — was built in 1981 and had been sinking into the ground since the 1990s, according to a 2020 study conducted by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University.

“I looked at it this morning and said, ‘Oh my god.’ We did detect that,” Wdowinski told USA Today on Thursday.

His research focused on which parts of Miami were sinking, in an effort to determine what areas could be most impacted by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

His team found that the Champlain Towers South in Surfside had been sinking at a rate of about 2 millimetres a year in the 1990s, the report said.

“We saw this building had some kind of unusual movement,” Wdowinski told the outlet.

However, the study focused on flooding hazards, not engineering concerns — and mention of the “12-story condominium” appeared in only one line, USA Today reported.

“We didn’t give it too much importance,” Wdowinski said, adding that he didn’t believe anybody in the city or state government would have been aware of the study.

Wdowinski’s research focused on which parts of Miami were sinking, in an effort to determine what areas could be most impacted by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

His team found that the Champlain Towers South in Surfside had been sinking at a rate of about 2 millimetres a year in the 1990s, the report said.

Meanwhile, Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother and grandmother are among at least 99 missing, said his mother called him to report “creaking noises” she heard a day before the building collapsed.

“She just told me she had woken up around 3 or 4 in the morning and had heard like some creaking noises,” he told CNN. “They were loud enough to wake her.”

Kobi Karp, an architect whose firm has worked on prominent Surfside and Miami Beach buildings, told The New York Times that the way the building had collapsed suggested a “possible internal failure.”

He said the internal failure may have been caused by ‘deterioration at the point where a horizontal slab of the building meets a vertical support wall’ – which he explained to the outlet could lead one of the building’s floors to suddenly fall and take the rest of the building down.

Karp said that such a deterioration could have happened either slowly over years or suddenly if the structure of the building was unintentionally damaged.

Surfside town officials on Thursday said the high-rise had been undergoing a county-mandated 40-year recertification process, which involves electrical and structural inspections.

City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Miami TV station WPLG that the process was believed to be proceeding without issues — and that a building inspector may have been on-site as recently as Wednesday.

“I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. … And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”

Kenneth Direktor, an attorney for the association of residents at the Champlain Towers South condo, said the building had “thorough engineering inspections over the last several months”.

“What that tells you is…. nothing like this was foreseeable, at least it wasn’t seen by the engineers who were looking at the building from a structural perspective,” he told CNN. “There was nothing to indicate something like this was going to happen.”

As questions are asked about the collapse, a search operation is underway to find survivors. At least one person is dead and at least 99 people are currently missing

As a desperate rescue operation is underway to find survivors, firefighters say they can hear “banging” beneath the rubble.

Online videos showed a large portion of the 12-storey building in the town of Surfside – just north of Miami Beach – reduced to rubble, with the apartments’ interiors exposed.

Miami Dade authorities declared a “Level 5” mass casualty event meaning statewide emergency resources are required, according to reports.

Further shocking footage shows the moment the towers collapsed, sending plumes of smoke into the air.

Surfside’s mayor he was not optimistic of finding survivors in the collapsed part of the building — saying it has “literally pancaked”.

Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah said they heard sounds from under the rubble and that “all operations are occurring underneath” it.

“They are occurring underneath the parking garage where we have teams of firefighters constantly as they continue making cuts, breaches and placing sonar devices, search cams to locate victims,” he said.

“We did receive sounds. Not necessarily people talking, but sounds. What sounds like people banging, not people but sounds of a possibility of a banging. We haven’t heard any voices coming from the pile.”

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue officials said more than 80 units responded to the collapse at the building around 2am (4pm AEST). They said 55 apartment units collapsed and first responders rescued 35 people trapped inside.

Authorities say least 99 people are missing, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said there are 102 people who have been accounted for so far.

Surfside’s mayor Charles Burkett confirmed at least one person had died in hospital following the collapse.

“This morning I was told by the chief that we treated 10 people on the site, two of those 10 were transported to the hospital. One has passed away,” he said.

It was unknown how many people were injured or were inside the building at the time of the collapse.

Mr Burkett said the building collapse was “less likely than a lightning strike.”

“It looks like a bomb went off but we are pretty sure a bomb didn’t go off,” he said. “You just don’t see buildings like this fall down in America.”

“There is no reason for this building to go down like this unless someone literally pulls out the supports from underneath, or they get washed out, or there is a sinkhole, or something like that because it just went down,” Mr Burkett said.

He said the part of the building that remained in tact had been checked and cleared of residents but he was not optimistic of finding survivors in the collapsed part of the building.

“The problem is the building has literally pancaked … It’s heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we’re going to be successful, as successful as we want to be, to find people alive.”

He said there was construction happening on the roof but the equipment was not heavy enough to cause the partial collapse.

Firefighters could be seen pulling a boy from the rubble alive.

At least 18 Latin American nationals are known to be among the missing, according to the country’s consulates. They are three Uruguayans, nine Argentines and six Paraguayans, among them the sister of the country’s first lady.

Surfside also has a large Jewish population and several rabbis were at the scene to help with rescue operations.

The building was occupied by a mix of full-time and seasonal residents and renters, and officials have stressed it is unclear how many people were actually inside at the time.

“It’s hard to get a count on it,” Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman told CNN. “You don’t know between vacations or anything else,” she said. “The hope is still there, but it’s waning.”

Nicholas Balboa told the network he was outside walking his dog when he heard and felt the ground shake.

He saw a plume of smoke and saw the collapsed building.

After running home to drop off his dog he came back to the site.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘How could anyone survive?’” Mr Balboa told the network.

“As I was thinking that, I heard a voice yelling,” he said, adding that as he got closer, he saw the boy “sticking his hand up through the debris and I could see his hand and fingers wiggling.”

“I began to climb the debris to try and get to him. I used the light on my phone to signal firefighters to come over. A police officer came over and he radioed for fire rescue to come over,” he added. “So then they began their efforts to get him out. It was him and his mother. We could hear him. We could see him clearly. His mom, we weren’t able to see, we weren’t able to hear her, so I don’t know what her status is, but god willing, she’s OK.”

He said the child was under his bed frame and mattress.

“He was obviously sleeping,” Mr Balboa said. “I can only imagine how many people were in their apartments either sleeping or watching TV or just whatever, just living their lives, unbeknownst to them the building was about to break away.”

“If it was not for me and another person being on the backside of the building I have no idea how long it would have been until they found him.”

One witness, who was in a neighbouring building, said the collapse felt like a “tornado or earthquake”.

The building is located one block away from where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump currently live.

Firefighters were also seen using a ladder truck to rescue people who were still in sections of the building that didn’t collapse.

One of the residents Barry Cohen, who has lived in the building for three years, said he and his wife prayed as they waited to be rescued.

“It must have been 20 minutes, it felt like a lifetime that we were trapped on the balcony of the building,” he told CNN. “When we were waiting to be rescued the building was still shaking. I thought at any minute we could be that same pile of rubble.”

“I thought the whole building was going to collapse so when we were in the cherry picker a feeling of relief came over me,” he said.

– with Mathew Murphy

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