Rescuers searched for victims of a collapsed South Florida condo building through fresh rubble Monday after crews set off a string of explosives that brought down the last of the structure and allowed search efforts to resume.
Three more victims were discovered in the newly accessible pile, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members, raising the death toll to 27 people. More than 115 people remain unaccounted for.
The demolition opened up a previously unreachable area for rescuers, though the chances of finding any survivors there waned, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on NBC’s “Today.”
“We understand that families realize the fact that time has gone by, they realize that the chances are growing all dimmer,” she said. “They are with us, they know what we’ve been doing every step of the way.”
Crews could be seen climbing a mound of debris at the site Monday alongside a piece of heavy equipment that was picking up rubble.
Workers immediately began clearing some of the new debris after the demolition late Sunday so rescuers could start making their way into parts of the underground garage that is of particular interest. Officials said the search effort resumed before midnight. It had been called off Saturday to allow specialists to drill holes for explosives needed for the demolition.
“As a result of the contractor who brought it down, he did it in such a way that literally we actually were back on the original pile in less than 20 minutes,” Jadallah told family members of those missing, drawing applause in a rare upbeat moment for the twice-daily meetings.
Rescuers were hoping to get a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble as they search for those believed to be trapped under the fallen wing of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside that collapsed June 24.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the collapse. On Sunday, Miami-Dade police identified David Epstein, 58, as one of the 27 people known to have perished in the fallen tower. His remains were recovered Friday.
During the demolition, a loud rat-at-tat of explosions echoed from the structure. Then the building began to fall, one floor after another, cascading into an explosion of dust. Plumes billowed into the air, as crowds watched the scene from afar.
Levine Cava told the Associated Press that the demolition went “exactly as planned” around 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
“It was picture perfect. Exactly what we were told would happen,” she said in an interview shortly after the demolition.
Some residents had pleaded to return to their homes one last time before the demolition to retrieve belongings left in haste, but were denied. Others wondered about the pets left behind, even though officials said they found no signs of animals after making three final sweeps, including the use of drones to peer into the abandoned structure.
Levine Cava said teams are working to save any personal items they can. “We have been asking them to go ahead and catalog all of their precious belongings so that as soon as they are recovered, we’ll be able to make a match.”
The decision to demolish the remnants of the building came after concerns mounted that the damaged structure was at risk of falling, endangering the crews below and preventing them from operating in some areas. Parts of the remaining building shifted on Thursday, prompting a 15-hour suspension in the work.
Approaching Tropical Storm Elsa had added urgency to the demolition plans with forecasts suggesting the system could bring strong winds. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in Florida because of the storm, making federal aid possible.
The latest forecasts have moved the storm westward, mostly sparing South Florida, but the area could still feel effects.
Authorities had gone door-to-door to advise nearby residents of the timing of the demolition, and to ask them to keep windows closed. They were told to stay inside until two hours after the blast to avoid the dust raised by the implosion.
The method used for Sunday night’s demolition is called “energetic felling,” which uses small detonation devices and relies on the force of gravity. The goal was to bring the building down in place, containing the collapse to the immediate surroundings.
Officials used tarps to visually mark the search area, in case new debris scattered unexpectedly.
State officials said they hired the BG Group, a general contractor based in Delray Beach, Florida, to lead the demolition. They did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how the firm was selected, but a contract for the project calls for the state to pay the company $935,000.
A spokesperson for the state’s Division of Emergency Management said the company subcontracted with Maryland-based Controlled Demolition Inc., which experts say is among only a handful of companies in the U.S. that demolishes structures using explosives.
Associated Press writers Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee; Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta, Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale and Ian Mader in Miami contributed to this report.