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Rescue Teams Search Unstable Pile Of Debris To Look For Condo Collapse Victims


One hundred and forty-nine people are still unaccounted for after the collapse of a condo building in Surfside, Fla. A dozen people are now confirmed dead. U.S. and international teams are still trying to find survivors in the unstable pile of debris.


Leon Roy Hausmann is a board member of Cadena International. That's a disaster assistance nonprofit. They've provided a trained team to help with the search and rescue. Seven volunteers from Mexico are in the middle of a 12-hour shift right now.

LEON ROY HAUSMANN: Hey. All I can say is that I'm extremely proud of them. And they're young individuals. Some of them are in the 20s. They left everything they were doing just to come here and help. But they're fully committed to fulfill this mission and find lives, though. I cannot be more proud of them. They're amazing people.

MARTIN: Their team also includes a rescue dog and a special device that uses sonar to spot underground movement. It can even register vital signs of possible survivors up to 39 feet beneath the rubble.

HAUSMANN: You detect life if you're lucky. And then you have the challenge to reach such location and take out the person, the survivor, you know, without harming him. This is very treacherous terrain. It's not stable. It's challenging because you have to be very careful in the way that you reach without making the whole thing collapse.

KING: Hausmann is Jewish, and so are the seven men and women doing the dangerous work. He says a precept from the Talmud keeps him and his team going. Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.

HAUSMANN: Of course, we want to save as many lives as we can. But even saving one life - to rescue somebody with life at this moment will be such a blessing.

MARTIN: He says that rescue teams from Cadena have worked in the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes and other humanitarian crises around the world, once rescuing a survivor in Nepal after being buried under rubble for seven days.

HAUSMANN: Those are miracles. I don't want to create false expectations. But all I'm trying to say is that we still remain hopeful because that's who we are.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, we are learning more about the warnings that led up to the tragedy in Surfside. NPR has obtained a letter written in the months before the collapse. The condo association president told residents that, quote, "concrete deterioration is accelerating," and that it would, quote, "begin to multiply exponentially over the years." So what does this mean for nearby communities?

We have Dan Gelber on the line. He is the mayor of neighboring Miami Beach. Mayor Gelber, thanks for being here.

DAN GELBER: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: You are obviously near the city of Surfside. What are you hearing from your residents about the emotional impact of all of this?

GELBER: Well, Surfside actually is on our border. So literally, you take one step from our city into Surfside. And this building sits on the border. So it's on our border. But even more than that - you know, this community - I think it's probably not wrong to say that there's an immense amount of people that are one degree of separation or much less to the building. Everybody sort of knows somebody who was in there or has a friend of a friend or a relative of a friend.

So we're - you know, we're watching the grieving and the uncertainty. And there really is almost a blanket of, you know, grief all across South Florida because it's just a very, very difficult scene when - and it feels like that. So, you know, we canceled our July 4 celebrations that were coming up, obviously. We just felt that this is not a time to be celebrating. It's a time to really be - you know, to be standing there with these family members who are hoping against hope right now.

MARTIN: I want to talk to you about the reporting that's coming out about the deterioration of the building - what was known and what wasn't. Miami-Dade County has a 40-year recertification process to make sure buildings are safe.

We spoke with John Pistorino, who designed that process. Here's a bit from our conversation yesterday.


JOHN PISTORINO: Our laws and our building code require the building be maintained as it was originally built at all times. So you start maintaining it. When you get to 40 years, an engineer who had been retained to look at the building should have no trouble going through it quickly if the building has been maintained as it was supposed to be.

MARTIN: The Champlain Tower South in Surfside was undergoing that process before it collapsed. In your opinion, your informed opinion, is 40 years too long to wait for buildings to be recertified for safety?

GELBER: Well, I think we're going to be looking at all of our existing processes. Most counties in Florida - I think we're the only couple counties down here out of 67 that even have this 40-year recertification. We have - and we've checked - over 500 buildings in our city currently undergoing the 40-year recertification. So we have started - we started making visits as early as Friday to those to do visual inspections. And we are now requiring that all of those 507 buildings submit an inspection report by a licensed professional within three weeks.

But to answer your question very directly, I think we have to hear from experts to tell us how this process needs to go. Do we need more reporting? I mean, most buildings try to be vigilant because they have, frankly, lots of residents who notice things and want things. And the fact that one may be in terrible disrepair is of great concern. And we'll look at the process to see if something needs to be done to create more bells and whistles and warning signs for us.

MARTIN: What are you doing right now? I mean, clearly, this must create some urgency around checking...


MARTIN: ...Your own buildings, right?

GELBER: Yeah. We all are. We have lots of residents, as you would imagine. I mean, look. The first thing is people are feeling this - the pain that - watching the pain of these folks. But they're also wondering about their own buildings. And so we are - we've already - our building inspectors have already gone to over 200 of the 507 buildings in the midst of recertifications. And we'll be getting these inspection reports - we're demanding - within three weeks. We've also engaged structural engineers. So when we hear something, we're able to send somebody who's an expert, you know, to check on it.

MARTIN: Are there any specific buildings - in seconds remaining of our conversation, are there specific...


MARTIN: ...Buildings you already know are problematic as a result of this investigation?

GELBER: No. We haven't found that yet.


GELBER: Not at all - but we're - you know, but a lot of people are very concerned. And we want people to feel confident.

MARTIN: Safe - yeah. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, thank you so much. We are all thinking...

GELBER: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...Of your communities.

GELBER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.