Fears grow of rising Miami death toll after building collapse

President Joe Biden declared an emergency in the state of Florida after a residential building partially collapsed, killing at least one person and leaving 99 unaccounted for.

Fears are rising that the death toll at the site just north of Miami could climb as rescue crews search and clear debris through the night. Dozens have been pulled out of the rubble.

Biden ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts. The emergency action authorises the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate “all disaster relief efforts”, a White House statement said on Friday.

“Whatever help you want the federal government to provide, we’re waiting, just ask us, we’ll be there, we’ll be there,” said Biden.

Ron DeSantis, Florida governor, late on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Miami-Dade county, which cleared the way for the FEMA to come to the site and provide assistance to rescue crews and affected families.

“We still have at least 99 who are unaccounted for,” said Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade county, told a news conference. She added that 102 people have been accounted for, which she described as “very encouraging”.

Rescue authorities responded to a call in the early hours of Thursday morning and arrived in the beachfront town of Surfside to find the north-east section of the 12-storey Champlain Towers South had collapsed.

Officials said that rescuers had pulled 35 occupants out of the building and two from the debris. Ray Jadallah, chief of operations at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said that from about 6am, rescue crews shifted their attention from inside the building to underneath the rubble.

Jadallah described the efforts as a slow and dangerous process and said that sonar, cameras and rescue dogs were being used at the top of the rubble to search for anyone trapped beneath.

“We did receive sounds. Not necessarily people talking, but sounds; what sounds like people banging,” Jadallah told a news briefing. “Short of that we haven’t heard any voices coming from the pile.”

Officials said it was too soon to know what caused the collapse of the condo tower, which was built in the early 1980s. Alfredo Ramirez, director of the Miami-Dade county police department, said his detectives, as well as state and federal authorities, would commence an investigation into possible causes once the search and rescue operations were completed.

“I was woken by what sounded like thunder,” resident Barry Cohen told the BBC. “It looked like a bomb had exploded: dirt and dust and smoke all over the place. The whole building just shook with a huge explosion.”

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