One Dead, Nearly a Hundred Unaccounted for in Miami Condo Collapse

Surfside has a large Jewish presence, with thousands of orthodox residents, including many members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect

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A building that partially collapsed is seen in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., June 2021.
A building that partially collapsed is seen in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., June 2021.Credit: MARCO BELLO

A beachfront condo building partially collapsed Thursday outside Miami, killing at least one person and trapping others in the tower that resembled a giant fractured dollhouse, with one side sheared away. Dozens of survivors were pulled out, and rescuers kept up a desperate search for more.

A wing of the 12-story building in the community of Surfside came down with a roar around 1:30 A.M. By late afternoon, nearly 100 people were still unaccounted for, authorities said, raising fears that the death toll could climb sharply. Officials did not know how many were in the tower when it fell.

What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to tumble into a heap in a matter of seconds was not immediately known, though local officials said the 12-story tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs.

“The building is literally pancaked,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

Sally Heyman, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner, said officials have been unable to make contact with at least 99 people who "supposedly" live in the building, home to a mix of people including families and part-time "snow birds" who spend the winter months in the state of Florida.

Officials said the building, built in 1981, was going through a recertification process requiring repairs and that another building was being newly constructed next door, although the cause of the collapse remained unclear.

"We have 51 people that were assumed to have been there, but you don't know between vacations or anything else, so we're still waiting," Heyman told CNN by phone, earlier in the day. "The hope is still there, but it's waning."

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a partial building collapse in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., June 2021. Credit: MARCO BELLO / Reuters

Scores of rescue units rushed to the partially collapsed building, and firefighters were seen pulling survivors from the concrete debris.

In a tweet, Miami-Dade police said one person had died in the collapse.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said during a news conference that the building manager told him the building was substantially full.

“The building is literally pancaked," Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”

Ten people were treated at the scene and two were brought to the hospital, one of whom died, Burkett said. He also said 15 families walked out of the building on their own.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” he said.

Santo Mejil, 50, told the Miami Herald his wife called him from the building, where she was working as an aide for an elderly woman.

People embrace at the Surfside Community Center near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., June 2021. Credit: MARCO BELLO / Reuters

“She said she heard a big explosion. It felt like an earthquake,” Mejil told the newspaper. He said she later called him and said rescuers were bringing her down.

Miami Dade Fire Rescue was conducting search and rescue operations, and said in a tweet that more than 80 units were “on scene with assistance from municipal fire departments.”

“We’re on the scene, so it’s still very active,” said Sgt. Marian Cruz of the Surfside Police Department. “What I can tell you is that the building has twelve floors. The entire back side of the building has collapsed.”

Burkett said roof work was being done on the building, but added that roofing work goes on in other buildings, and he did not see how that could have caused the building to collapse.

Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.

The collapse left a number of units in the still-standing part of the building exposed. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside the damaged apartments. Air conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.

Police blocked nearby roads, and scores of fire and rescue vehicles, ambulances and police cars swarmed the area.

The debris from the collapse coated cars up to two blocks away with a light layer of dust.

A police officer stands near the partially collapsed building in Surfside, Florida on Thursday.Credit: Chandan Khanna / AFP

Photos and video from the scene show the collapse affected half the tower. Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building. The department has yet to say what may have caused the collapse.

The sea-view condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside, on the beach. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000.

The area is a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The community provides a stark contrast from the bustle and glitz of South Beach with a slower paced neighborhood feel.

Surfside has a large Jewish presence, with thousands of orthodox residents, including many members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect. 

The collapsed building is on Collins Avenue, one mile south of The Shul, an Orthodox synagogue where last week Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bills granting new privileges to Hatzalah of South Florida and creating a daily moment of silence in Florida schools.

A Jewish couple is believed to be trapped in the collapsed building, a source in touch with the victims’ family told Haaretz on Thursday afternoon.

According to ultra-Orthodox news website Yeshiva World News, between eight and nine Jewish residents are among those missing in the building collapse and a Jewish police chaplain is currently at the scene.

The website, which based its report on "highly credible sources," called on its readers to recite psalms for 12 casualties which were identified only by their Hebrew names. It also quoted Hatzalah South Florida, a local Jewish rescue service, as stating that it had "established a command center on the scene and is working closely with [Miami-Date Fire Rescue] and other law enforcement agencies."

The Chesed shel Emes organization, which provides assistance to grieving Jewish families, was also present at the scene, YWN reported.

Resident Barry Cohen told CNN that he was trapped in his apartment following the partial collapse, describing the hallway outside his apartment as "just a pile of dust and rubble and paint falling from the ceilings."

He later made his way onto his balcony for what "must have been 20 minutes" but "felt like a lifetime."

"I thought the whole building was going to just collapse. So once we were in the cherry picker, a feeling of relief just came over me that was incredible that I survived this tragedy," he said.

"There's a large Jewish community here. I know one family that's for sure in there now. I heard there's a couple there from Australia there that I know that unfortunately hasn't been heard from," neighborhood resident Joseph Waks told Haaretz, noting that the local synagogue's mailing list had named five community members who were still missing.

"Everything is subdued and cancelled" in the wake of the tragedy, he continued, describing a community in shock. "This is a real ground zero for us."

"It's very sad. I was running on the boardwalk this morning and trucks and sirens were going by. It's a very quiet neighborhood. It's very tragic. We don't know a lot of information."

In a Facebook post, Gabriel Groisman, the mayor of the neighboring Bal Harbour Village, called the collapse an "absolutely devastating scene."

"I am replete with shock and sadness, am praying for the residents and their families, and am thankful for our first responders who have been on the scene since 2am and continue to work to save lives," he wrote.

Reuters contributed to this report