Updated: 11 p.m.
Demolition crews set off explosives late Sunday to bring down the damaged remaining portion of a collapsed South Florida condo building, a key step to resuming the search for victims as rescuers possibly gain access to new areas of the rubble.
A loud series of explosions echoed from the structure just before 10:30 p.m. local time. 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.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Associated Press after the demolition that it went “exactly as planned.” She said the rescue crews had already been given the all-clear to begin work on the mound again.
“It was picture perfect. Exactly what we were told would happen,” she said.
Crews were to begin clearing some of the new debris so rescuers could start making their way into parts of the underground garage that is of particular interest. Once there, they were hoping to get a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.
“At this precise moment I feel relief. I feel relief because this building was unstable. The building was hampering our search efforts,” Levine Cava said.
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The precarious, still-standing portion of a collapsed structure was rigged with explosive charges and set for demolition, after suspending the search-and-rescue mission.
Levine Cava said rescuers received the “all-clear” after the demolition and were gearing up to dive back into the task of trying to locate any survivors buried under the rubble.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the June 24 collapse.
Rescuers are hoping the demolition will give them access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest. Once a new pathway into the initial rubble is secure, “we will go back to the debris pile, and we’ll begin our search and rescue efforts,” Miami-Dade Fire Chief Albert Cominsky said.
The decision to demolish the Surfside 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. An approaching storm added urgency to the concerns.
“I truly believe ... that the family members recognize and appreciate that we are proceeding in the best possible fashion to allow us to do the search that we need to do,” Levine Cava said.
Responding to concerns of missing pets, Levine Cava said she had made it “a priority since Day 1 to do absolutely everything possible to search for every animal.”
She said Miami-Dade fire rescue team members had conducted three full sweeps of Champlain Towers South, including searching in closets and under beds, but “the latest information we have is that there are no animals remaining in the building.”
Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah had told family members Sunday afternoon that the demolition had been scheduled for between 10 p.m. Sunday and 3 a.m. Monday, barring any last-minute glitch such as someone straying into the restricted zone around the building. Levine Cava later confirmed that time frame.
The remaining portion of the building came down around 10:30 p.m. local time.
The mayor said residents in the area were told to stay inside until two hours after the blast to avoid the dust raised by the explosion. Local authorities had gone door-to-door to advise them of the timing, and to ask them to keep windows closed.
The search at the Surfside building has been suspended since Saturday afternoon so workers could begin the drilling work and lay the explosives. Officials said the suspension was necessary because the drilling could cause the structure to fail.
So far, rescuers have recovered the remains of 24 people, with 121 still missing. Many others barely escaped. The Miami-Dade Police Department on Saturday night added Graciela Cattarossi, 48, and Gonzalo Torre, 81, to the list of those confirmed dead.
Approaching Tropical Storm Elsa has added urgency to the demolition plans with forecasts suggesting there could be strong winds in the area by Monday. The latest forecasts have moved the storm westward, mostly sparing South Florida, but National Hurricane Center meteorologist Robert Molleda said the area could still feel effects.
“We’re expecting primarily tropical storm force gusts,” Molleda said, referring to gusts above 40 mph.
The detonation aimed to bring the remaining portion of the building straight down and toward the street side, away from the existing pile of debris, Jadallah said.
The method of demolition is called “energetic felling,” which uses small detonation devices and relies on the force of gravity. Levine Cava said that should bring the building down in place, containing the collapse to the immediate surroundings so as to minimally disturb the existing mound of debris — where scores of people are believed to be trapped.
Officials used tarps to visually mark the search area, in case new debris scatters 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 projects calls for the state to pay the company $935,000.
A spokesperson for the state’s Division of Emergency Management said the company is subcontracting 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. The company was supposed to place explosives on the basement and lobby levels of the still-standing structure, according to the contract for the work.
CDI is “probably one of the best” in the industry, said Steve Schwartz, a member of the National Demolition Association’s board of directors. He described the company’s president and owner, Mark Loizeaux, as “cool, calm and collected.”
In implosions — using explosives to have a building fall in on itself — the charges are generally set off in rapid succession over a matter of seconds, said Scott Homrich, who heads the National Demolition Association and runs his own demolition company in Detroit, Michigan. Setting the explosives off at intervals serves to break up the building at the same time it’s coming down.
Officials acknowledged that the tragedy is continuing to unfold during the July 4th holiday.
“This July 4 we’re reminded that patriotism isn’t just about loyalty to country,” said Levine Cava. “It’s about loyalty to one another — to our communities, to those in need whose names or stories we may not know ever, but to whom we are connected by compassion and by resilience.”