The precarious, still-standing portion of a collapsed South Florida condo building was rigged with explosive charges and set for demolition overnight, Miami-Dade County officials said late Sunday. The work has suspended the search-and-rescue mission, but officials said it will open up new areas for rescue teams to explore.
Rescuers will await the “all-clear” after the demolition and then immediately dive back into the task of trying to locate any survivors buried under the rubble, County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. Officials had previously said that the search could resume from 15 minutes to an hour after the detonation.
“We are standing by. We are ready to go in, no matter the time of night,” Levine Cava told a news conference Sunday night.
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, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah has said. That could give a clearer picture of voids that may exist in the rubble and could possibly harbor survivors.
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.
Jadallah 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 confirmed that time frame.
The mayor said residents in the area were being told to stay inside until two hours after the blast to avoid the dust raised by the explosion. Local authorities were going door to door to advise them of the timing, and to ask them to keep windows closed.
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.”
The search at the Surfside building has been suspended since Saturday afternoon so workers could begin the drilling work and lay the explosives. Jadallah said the suspension was necessary because the drilling could cause the structure to fail, but a family member could be heard calling the delay “devastating.”
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 (64 kph).
The detonation will aim 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.
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.”