Florida condo collapse: Death toll rises to 36 as storm threat continues

Four additional bodies were found in the rubble of a collapsed condo tower in Florida, bringing the death toll to 36 people, as rescue crews continued to search amid the threat of thunderstorms from a tropical storm hitting the state.

Crews in yellow helmets and blue jumpsuits searched the debris for a 13th day while wind and rain from the outer bands of Tropical Storm Elsa complicated their efforts. Video released by the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department showed workers lugging pickaxes and power saws through piles of concrete rubble barbed with snapped steel rebar. Other searchers could be seen digging with gloved hands through pulverized concrete and dumping shovels of debris into large buckets.

Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah gave the news to family members during a closed-door morning briefing Tuesday. Lightning in the area prompted a two-hour delay early Tuesday in the ongoing search for victims of the 12-story Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, located just north of Miami Beach.

Workers have continued to look for open spaces where people might be found alive nearly two weeks after the June 24 collapse. No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the collapse when many of the building's residents were asleep.

"We’re actively searching as aggressively as we can," Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said at a news conference. But he added: "Unfortunately, we are not seeing anything positive. The key things — void spaces, living spaces — we’re not seeing anything like that."

While officials still call the efforts a search-and-rescue operation, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava added that loved ones of those still missing are preparing for news of "tragic loss."

"I think everybody will be ready when it’s time to move to the next phase," said Levine Cava, who stressed that crews would use the same care as they go through the rubble even after their focus shifts from searching for survivors to recovering the dead.

"Really, you will not see a difference," she said. "We will carefully search for bodies and belongings, and to catalog and respectfully deal with any remains that we find."

5a3dd721-Over One Hundred Missing After Residential Building In Miami Area Partially Collapses

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JULY 05: After a brief stoppage to demolish the standing remains, Search and Rescue personnel continue working in the rubble pile of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo on July 5, 2021, in Surfside, Flori

Meanwhile, teams also faced heavy bands of rain and thunderstorms as Tropical Storm Elsa moved toward Florida. Lightning forced crews to pause the search on Monday and a garage area in the rubble also filled with water, officials said.

The latest forecasts showed Elsa moving westward, mostly sparing South Florida, but another day of rain was expected at the site. Elsa strengthened early Tuesday, lashing the Florida Keys and possibly becoming a hurricane again before making landfall somewhere between Tampa Bay and Florida's Big Bend and crossing northern Florida. 

RELATED: Hurricane watch issued for coastal parts of Bay Area ahead of ‘lopsided’ Elsa

Cava said the delays have frustrated rescue crews, who work through the rain but must pause for lightning.

"Truly they live to save lives, and they’ve pushed ahead no matter what is thrown in their way," she said at an evening news conference.

The demolition on Sunday of the remaining portion of the structure that was still standing allowed teams to access previously unreachable places, including bedrooms where people were believed to be sleeping at the time of the disaster. 

The demolition was prompted by fears that the rest of the structure could fall, Levine Cava said. Teams had been unable to search areas closest to the building over its instability.

Rescue work was paused over the weekend as specialists drilled holes for explosives needed for the demolition.

"Truly we could not continue without bringing this building down," she said.

The cause of the collapse of the Champlain, which was built in 1981, remains under investigation. A 2018 engineering report found that the building's ground-floor pool deck was resting on a concrete slab that had "major structural damage" and needed extensive repairs. The report also found "abundant cracking" of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage.

Just two months before the building came down, the president of its board wrote a letter to residents saying that structural problems identified in the 2018 inspection had "gotten significantly worse" and that major repairs would cost at least $15.5 million. With bids for the work still pending, the building suddenly collapsed.

RELATED: Florida condo collapse: 16-year-old survivor was conscious after falling 'several stories'

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.