The death toll in the collapse of an Miami-area condominium tower rose to 79 on Friday after workers extracted 14 more bodies from the ruins and said they had reduced the pile of debris down nearly to ground level.
The recovery left 61 people still missing and feared dead in the concrete and steel rubble of the 12-story oceanfront building in Surfside, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told an afternoon news conference.
The number of missing could change as it remains possible that not all were in the building when it abruptly crumbled to the ground in the early morning hours of June 24. Officials have yet to determine the cause of the disaster.
Crews working around the clock for 16 days have cut the size of the debris pile from four or five stories to nearly ground level, with some at below-ground level.
The pace at which crews were finding the dead has accelerated since teams demolished a still-standing section of the building over the weekend, allowing greater access inside the ruins and more use of heavy equipment.
Levine Cava said a cat named Binx that had been living on the ninth floor of the building before it caved in had been found alive in the area, calling the discovery after more than two weeks “a small bit of good news.”
A debate has already sprung up among members of the stricken community over what to do with the site where the Champlain Towers South once stood, with attorneys for some of the victims’ family members suggesting it should be a memorial to the dead.
Investigators have not determined what caused the Champlain Towers South to fall apart without warning. Attention has been focused on a 2018 engineering report that warned of structural deficiencies.
Following the collapse residents of a nearby condominium, Crestview Towers, were told to leave after engineers found serious concrete and electrical problems. They have not been allowed to return as city officials try to determine if the building can be stabilized.