At least nine of the 98 victims who died in the Florida condo collapse might have survived the initial cave-in, with one feared to have been trapped for up to 10 hours beforre succumbing to their wounds.
According to the logs on June 24 after the Champlain Towers South collapsed at 1:25 a.m., rescue teams were in contact with live victims. Search dogs – one of the department’s most reliable indicators of life – confirmed people were alive in the mountain of debris, although it is unclear how many had survived.
An investigation by USA Today revealed fire logs suggested one victim was still alive for about 10 hours after the worst building collapse in modern US history.
Fire logs from 6.42 a.m. and 7.44 a.m. showed that canines signaled possible live victims.
At 11.05 a.m. – about ten hours after the initial crumbled – fire logs indicated rescuers ‘lost voice contact’ with a victim and requested canine backup for a live search of the basement of the partially-collapsed building.
At 11.17 a.m. rescuers needed a ‘new chipping hammer and power supply’.
By 11.30 a.m. two ‘companies’ were actively ‘chipping’ in an attempt to gain an entrance, and at 11.50 a.m. everyone was directed ‘out of the hole’ so canines could enter, as reported by USA Today.
An investigation by USA Today revealed at least nine of the 98 victims who died in the Surfside, Florida, condo collapse – 10 per cent of the total fatalities – might have survived the initial cave-in
According to the logs on June 24 after the Champlain Towers South collapsed at 1.25am, rescue teams were in contact with live victims
Search dogs – one of the department’s most reliable indicators of life – confirmed people were alive in the mountain of debris
Rod Tyus (not pictured), a captain with West Metro Fire Rescue in Denver and program manager of Colorado’s Task Force One, said: ‘(Canines are) one of the best tools we have’
Miami-Dade officials reported that rescue efforts included sonar, cameras and manpower on places where dogs signaled live victims but none were located
Miami-Dade officials said the instability of the remaining structure posed a lethal threat to rescuers who were battling underground flooding, fires, smoke, wind, rain, lightning and extreme heat.
They also reported that rescue efforts included sonar, cameras and manpower on places where dogs signaled live victims but none were located.
Rod Tyus, a captain with West Metro Fire Rescue in Denver and program manager of Colorado’s Task Force One, told USA Today: ‘(Canines are) one of the best tools we have.’
But the news station reported that nothing in the log indicated the outcome of this rescue effort. Public comments made later by two fire rescue officials confirmed rescuers had voice contact with a female victim they were unable to locate.
At a press conference on July 1 Fire Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said: ‘(Crews) were searching for a female voice for several hours (and) eventually we didn’t hear a voice anymore.’
The Miami-Dade Police Department closed USA Today’s request for further information about the woman’s identity and details about the rescue effort. They said that no such records exist.
According to USA Today medical examiners cited injuries that, on their own, would not result in immediate death or even be considered life-threatening.
Dramatic images show first responders pulling Jonah Handler, 15, out of the rubble hours after the building collapsed
Handler, 15, pictured in photos weeks after he was filmed being saved from the razed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside
Wounds included small cuts, ‘possible’ fractures, broken legs and, in one case, no sight of physical trauma – which Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said is a ‘horrifying thought’.
Two such reports were filed for Deborah Berezdivin and Ilan Naibryf, both 21. The USA Today investigation revealed the two were dating and living together in Unit 811.
According to the medical examiner’s report, Berezdivin had no visible injuries. An X-ray showed only that her right ribs ‘appear to have fractures’.
Naibryf suffered a 15cm-by-five cm cut on his thigh and ‘possible fractures,’ the report showed.
At the request of USA Today, the medical examiner’s reports in question were reviewed by independent forensic autopsy pathologist Dr Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner of New York City.
Officials previously provided contradicting information, telling the public that all of the deceased victims died at or near the moment collapse.
Meanwhile, Baden – former chairman of the forensic pathology panel of the US Congress Select Committee on Assassinations – said it was ‘inaccurate’ for officials to say that none of the victims survived the initial collapse.
‘That usually wouldn’t cause death,’ Baden said of Berezdivin’s broken ribs.
Graciela Cattarossi, 48, also did not appear to suffer fatal injuries. Her report showed a five cm-by-three cm cut on the back of her head and a nine cm-by-five cm cut on her left knee.
‘None of Cattarossi’s injuries are life-threatening,’ Baden told USA Today. ‘It’s not the kind of injuries that would have caused death immediately.’
Cattarossi died along with her seven-year-old daughter Stella, parents and aunt – all whom lived in Unit 501.
Deborah Berezdivin (right) and Ilan Naibryf (left), both 21, were dating and living together in Unit 811. According to the medical examiner’s report, Berezdivin had no visible injuries. An X-ray showed only that her right ribs ‘appear to have fractures’. Naibryf suffered a 15cm-by-five cm cut on his thigh and ‘possible fractures,’ the report showed
Sophia Lopez Mareira – the sister of Paraguay’s first lady – of Unit 1010 died along with her husband, three children and nanny. The medical examiner’s report showed Moreira suffered rib and pelvic fractures, a cut on her left thigh and another in the groin area
Jonah’s mother Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified to have been killed in the disaster. She lived in Unit 1002 and died while being taken to the hospital. The USA Today investigation suggested she died from crush syndrome
Graciela Cattarossi (left), 86, and her husband, Gino Cattarossi (right), 89. Graciela did not appear to suffer any life-threatening injuries
Cattarossi (left) died along with her seven-year-old daughter Stella, parents and aunt – all whom lived in Unit 501
USA Today’s investigation revealed four-year-old Emma Guara’s injuries sustained during the collapse were insufficiently severe to have caused her death. Her report showed two broken and a ‘suggestion of left upper rib fractures’.
Guara lived in Unit 802 and died along with both her parents and her 10-year-old sister.
Baden told USA Today one of the medical examiner’s reports that most troubled him was that of 52-year-old Harold Rosenberg, who lived in Unit 212.
Rosenberg’s daughter and son-in-law also died as a result of the collapse but according to medical examiners he did not have any evidence of injury whatsoever.
Reports simply listed Rosenberg’s cause of death as ‘building collapse’ – which Baden cited is an event, not an injury.
Baden said: ‘An autopsy should have been performed on Harold Rosenberg. Nobody will accept ‘building collapse’ as a cause of death.’
Unit 1111 resident Gloria Machado, 71, also did not appear to have immediate life-threatening injuries. USA Today reported records showed she suffered ‘fractures of the skull and facial bones, ribs, spinal column, legs and feet,’ as well as ‘global laceration of the scalp with multiple skull fractures and multiple facial fractures’.
Six minutes after the collapse 911 operators received a call from a man claiming to be Machado’s son, fire rescue logs showed.
The caller said he ‘received a call from his mother’ and she was ‘trapped inside her apartment 1111 and unable to get out,’ according to the fire logs.
The caller’s identification is redacted from the report and the fire department declined to provide USA TODAY with any details about the caller or the outcome of any investigation into the incident.
Baden said he could not rule out the possibility that Machado made that call herself. He said her injuries appeared survivable, or she might have sustained them later or even after death, from crushing shifts in the debris.
USA Today also identified a victim who suffered crush syndrome – when extremities or other parts of the body are compressed for an extended period of time – based off a fire rescue log entry from 2.59am.
When crush syndrome happens, death is not immediate but comes later, usually as a result of renal failure due to the release of toxic muscle cell components and electrolytes into the circulatory system when the compressing object is removed, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Emma Guara, 4, Lucia Guara, 10, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and Marcus Guara, 52 died in the collapse. Emma (left) did not suffer life-threatening injuries and her report showed two broken and a ‘suggestion of left upper rib fractures’
Leon Oliwkowicz and his wife Christina were also identified as victims of the tower collapse. Their neighbor Steve Rosenthal safely escaped from Unit 705 and thought he heard Leon screaming for help
That victim was believed to be Stacy Fang, 54, who lived in Unit 1002 and was rescued from the rubble after responders saved her living son, 15-year-old Jonah Handler.
Fang died while being taken to the hospital and USA Today said that there was no mention of crush syndrome on her report.
The news station reported that the only autopsy that was conducted did not indicate crush syndrome and fire rescue officials declined to confirm if it was Fang. They cited HIPPA, which covers patient confidentiality.
The sounds rescuers reported hearing – which initially led so many loved ones to hold out hope for survivors – did not lead to any live rescues. The day after the collapse, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah explained at a press conference that the noises did not necessarily indicate human life.
‘It could be tapping, it could be steel twisting, it could be some of the debris raining down,’ he said.
The initial 67 reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s office list causes of death as either ‘blunt force injuries’ or ‘building collapse,’ as reported by USA Today.
Darren Caprara (pictured), the director of operations at the medical examiner’s office, said there were several cases where examiners were unable to determine the cause of death
Forensic experts said these terms would not hold up in court because they do not include what specifically killed someone.
Only one autopsy was performed, according to USA Today, who reported that technicians have otherwise conducted external examinations or, in some cases, X-rays.
Darren Caprara, the director of operations at the medical examiner’s office, said there were several cases where examiners were unable to determine the cause of death.
Take 36-year-old Sophia Lopez Mareira – the sister of Paraguay’s first lady – for example, of Unit 1010. Moreira, her husband, three children and nanny were all killed in the collapse.
The medical examiner’s report showed Moreira suffered rib and pelvic fractures, a cut on her left thigh and another in the groin area – none of which would necessarily lead to death, Baden said.
‘That’s why looking inside the body can be helpful,’ he added.
But Caprara said this was not possible because ‘most’ of the families were of Jewish faith and in Judaism, keeping a body intact so that it may be buried in its entirety is something that is highly valued.
Caprara told USA Today that some families specifically requested that autopsies not be performed.
Without autopsies there is simply no way to determine a cause of death for every victim, Caprara told the news station. He pointed out that even victims who suffered severe physical trauma might not have died of those injuries because it is unknown if those injuries were inflicted before or after death.
People have written messages to the victims of the Miami condo collapse
People visited the memorial that has pictures of some of the victims from the partially collapsed condo building
The investigation has raised questions about whether any more victims of the tragic event could have been rescued, how the collapse has been investigated and why more autopsies have not been performed.
He said: ‘Just because the body gets mangled, doesn’t mean that’s what killed you. If the cause of death could have been multiple things and we don’t have enough evidence to say definitely what it was, we don’t list possible causes.’
‘Sometimes if we’re not sure if it’s blunt force trauma the doctor will choose to put the general overarching event,’ he added – hence the term ‘building collapse’ for many victims as the cause of death.
Families of victims have already filed 34 lawsuits against the condo association, the architect and the consulting group that completed a structural assessment prior to the building collapse.
The medical examiners’ reports and the USA Today investigation will be a crucial part of the evidence in upcoming proceedings, particularly how they relate to possible pain and suffering.
This new evidence could also expand the scope of potential legal liabilities for the defendants of existing lawsuits, according to USA Today.
Personal injury attorney with the Haggard Law Firm based in Miami Pedro Echarte III told the news station: ‘More pain and suffering theoretically entitles you to a larger recovery, including compensatory damages.’
Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer (pictured) said that a problem with the rescue efforts in the early moments of the collapse were that first responders simply lacked the resources and knowledge to deal with such a large-scale tragedy of this kind
Officials, relatives and neighbors all reported contact with possible survivors in the immediate hours after the collapse.
Burkett told USA Today: ‘Families deserve to know what really happened to their loved ones. It’s the only way they can heal.’
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue officials declined USA Today’s request for comment.
Witness reports also show there might have been other survivors.
Steve Rosenthal safely escaped from Unit 705 and said he heard his neighbors of more than 15 years – Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74, and Leon Oliwkowicz, 80 – screaming for help after the collapse.
‘I run to the front door, open it up and a plume of smoke just knocks me back like a sonic boom,’ Rosenthal said. ‘And my neighbors in 704, I’m pretty sure it was them, are yelling ‘Help me, help me, get me out’.’
Rosenthal was rescued by firefighters from his balcony but was unable to help his neighbors.
While there is no way to know for certain whether those cries were actually from Elvira and Oliwkowicz, police records showed the couple were two of the first victims to be found and identified.
Medical examiner reports on the two victims showed potentially lethal injuries but without autopsies, Baden told USA Today, the severity of their injuries or when they occurred, remain unknown.
‘There is evidence of death, not cause of death,’ he said.
At the time of the collapse, Morabito Consultants, an engineering firm that performed a 2018 structural analysis of the building and has been named in legal proceedings, issued a statement saying: ‘We are deeply troubled by this building collapse and are working closely with the investigating authorities to understand why the structure failed.’
Miami-Dade police announced at several press conferences that they immediately designated the collapse site a crime scene. However, autopsies were never mandated and USA Today contacted the department last week to find out why.
‘In the first 48 hours, we obviously did not have all the resources,’ Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said
Rescuers were seen searching through the debris on June 27
Search and rescue personnel worked on site after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside
‘It’s not a criminal investigation, it’s a death investigation,’ said Alvaro Zabaleta, the public information officer for the Miami-Dade Police Department.
But ‘criminal investigation’ was precisely the reason cited by the condo association’s court-appointed receiver for not allowing an independent structural engineer hired by the town of Surfside to access neither the collapse site nor the debris being stored in two off-site locations.
The fact that the site was designated a crime scene was also what led Surfside commissions to pass a resolution on August 10 allowing them to pursue legal action against the county, which would allow them to access the collapse site and stored debris.
Mayor Burkett told USA Today that the police departments statement was ‘news to me as far as the assertion that it’s not a crime scene’.
After USA Today’s publication of the investigation Rachel Johnson, communications director for Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, contradicted the police department’s original statement. She said that from the ‘onset of the investigation’ law enforcement did not consider the collapse a criminal investigation.
‘After all the evidence is collected and presented by the homicide team, the state attorney’s office will make a further determination about whether or not criminal charges will be brought in this case,’ Johnson wrote in an email to USA Today.
Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told the news station that a problem with the rescue efforts in the early moments of the collapse were that first responders simply lacked the resources and knowledge to deal with such a large-scale tragedy of this kind.
‘The truth is, everyone was in over their head with this,’ Salzhauer said. ‘This is not in their wheelhouse.’
USA Today reported that about 80 per cent of the 136-unit, 13-story oceanfront condominium complex had been destroyed. Only a 21-foot high, compacted pile of debris remained.
In one section, four 10-foot-high floors has been reduced to a collective three feet.
Ten days after the collapse – on July 4 – officials intentionally imploded what was left of the structure ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa.
They later revealed that about one-third of the debris, including a master bedroom line where many victims were located, had not been searched.
Levine Cava told USA Today that part of getting the necessary resources to respond to such catastrophe depend on the federal government declaring a state of emergency.
She said that when she asked Florida Gov Ron DeSantis to do so on the morning of the collapse he did not respond until later that afternoon and told her the county must declare one first.
Levine Cava said she knew every hour counted.
‘I was thinking, much like an earthquake, we’ll just dig and get people out,’ she said. ‘Until I saw it, and I knew that was a very difficult situation and very unlikely that many would have survived this collapse.’
DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw said there was ‘no delay’ on his part because the governor was on-site in Surfside from 11am until 3pm on the day of the collapse and ‘the idea of a state emergency declaration’ was not mentioned by anyone, as reported by USA Today.
Levine Cava said she declared a state of emergency around 4.30pm at DeSantis’ request. The state and president followed suit, which allowed responders to get the resources they needed the following day.
‘This was a professionally executed emergency response effort at the local, state, and federal level, and all leaders involved put politics aside to focus on helping the Surfside community in any way possible,’ Pushaw said in a statement to USA Today.
‘In the first 48 hours, we obviously did not have all the resources,’ Burkett said.
‘I think that it was a progressive evolution and every hour that went by we continued to add resources,’ he added.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) offered their services within hours of the collapse but US officials did not approve them until the third day of rescue efforts. The IDF team arrived in Florida the morning of the fourth day, according to USA Today.
Unlike the American rescue teams’ efforts the IDF did not rely on dogs but on ‘field rescue intelligence,’ which included collaborating with victim’s families and other first responders, plus developing computer models of the building to help locate the victims.
IDF’s team of 15 helped recover the bodies of 81 victims in the two-week span they were in Florida.
Salzhauer told USA Today: ‘I think what is not fair here is that it is left to the media to investigate when it should be professionals. It should be the city, the county – it should be the government doing their job of getting answers for the families.’
The painstaking search for survivors shifted to a recovery effort after authorities said they had come to the conclusion that there was ‘no chance of life’ in the rubble
A total of 98 people died after the 12-story Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24 at approximately 1.24am