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‘Deep fire’ slowing rescue effort at collapsed Florida condo

(In this aerial image search and rescue workers work the site of an oceanfront condo building that partially collapsed, in Surfside, Fla., Friday, June 25, 2021. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says rescue officials are continuing to search Friday and there’s still hope of finding survivors in the rubble more than 24 hours after the building collapsed. AP Photo: Gerald Herbert)

By RUSS BYNUM, CURT ANDERSON and BERNARD CONDON, SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP):- A “very deep fire” hampered rescue efforts Saturday at the collapsed oceanfront condominium tower near Miami where authorities are racing to recover any survivors beneath a mountain of rubble, officials said.

Rescuers were using infrared technology, water and foam to battle the blaze, whose source was unclear. Smoke has been the biggest barrier, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference.

“We’re facing very incredible difficulties with this fire. It’s a very deep fire. It’s extremely difficult to locate the source of the fire,” she said.

One hundred fifty-nine people remain unaccounted for since Thursday’s collapse, which killed at least four.

Authorities also announced Saturday they are beginning an audit of buildings nearing their 40-year review — like the fallen Champlain Towers South — to make sure they’re safe.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have joined local and state authorities at the site, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

The news came after word of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building had “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below its pool deck that needed extensive repairs, part of a series of documents released by the city of Surfside.

While the report from the firm of Morabito Consultants did not warn of imminent danger from the damage — and it is unclear if any of the damage observed was responsible for the collapse — it did note the need for extensive and costly repairs to fix systemic issues with the building.

It said the waterproofing under the pool deck had failed and had been improperly laid flat instead of sloped, preventing water from draining off.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replaced the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

The firm recommended that the damaged slabs be replaced in what would be a major repair.

The report also uncovered “abundant cracking and spalling” of concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage. Some of the damage was minor, while other columns had exposed and deteriorating rebar. It also noted that many of the building’s previous attempts to fix the columns and other damage with epoxy were marred by poor workmanship and were failing.

Beneath the pool deck “where the slab had been epoxy-injected, new cracks were radiating from the originally repaired cracks,” the report said.

Gregg Schlesinger, a former construction project engineer who is now a lawyer handling construction defect cases, said another area of concern in the report is cracks that were discovered in the tower’s stucco facade. Schlesinger said that could indicate structural problems inside the exterior that could have been critical in the collapse.

“The building speaks to us. It is telling us we have a serious problem,” Schlesinger said in a phone interview Saturday.

He added that there are frequently “telltale signs” on oceanfront buildings indicating problems structurally largely from saltwater and salty air intrusion.

“This is a wakeup call for folks on the beach. Investigate and repair. This should be done every five years,” Schlesinger added. “The scary portion is the other buildings. You think this is unique? No.”

Abi Aghayere, a Drexel University engineering researcher, said the extent of the damage shown in the engineering report was notable. In addition to possible problems under the pool, he said several areas above the entrance drive showing signs of deterioration were worrisome and should have been repaired immediately because access issues prevented a closer inspection.

“Were the supporting members deteriorated to the extent that a critical structural element or their connections failed leading to progressive collapse?” he wrote in an email to the AP after reviewing the report. “Were there other areas in the structure that were badly deteriorated and unnoticed?”

On Saturday, a crane could be seen removing pieces of rubble from a more than 30-foot pile of debris at the collapse site. Scores of rescuers used big machines, small buckets, drones, microphones and their own hands to pick through the mountain of debris that had been the 12-story Champlain Towers South.

Levine Cava told WPLG there was no change in the number of people still unaccounted for: “We are at status quo,” she said. “I’m hopeful this will be a day that we have will have a breakthrough.”

Rachel Spiegel was anxious for any update on her missing mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, who lived on the sixth floor.

“I’m just praying for a miracle,” Spiegel said. “We’re heartbroken that she was even in the building.”

Jeanne Ugarte was coming to grips with what she feared was a tragic end for longtime friends Juan and Ana Mora and their son Juan Jr., who was visiting his parents in their condo at the tower.

“I know they’re not going to find them (alive),” Ugarte said. “It’s been too long.”

While officials said no cause for the collapse early Thursday has been determined, Gov. Ron DeSantis said a “definitive answer” was needed in a timely manner. Video showed the center of the building appearing to tumble down first, followed by a section nearer to the beach.

The 2018 report was part of preliminary work by the engineering company conducting the building’s required inspections for a recertification due this year of the building’s structural integrity at 40 years. The condominium tower was built in 1981.

___
Condon reported from New York. Associated Press Terry Spencer in Surfside contributed to this report.

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