Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah got a call at 2:13 a.m. from his colleagues at the scene of the Surfside condo collapse.
Jadallah was told the standing 12-story building at Champlain Towers South abutting the pile of debris — where 145 people remain missing — was shaking. If the building collapsed, it could threaten not only the lives of the rescue workers but also fatally complicate the search and harm anyone who may be alive in the debris. Because of that, the search was immediately halted.
Early Thursday, there was still no activity there as officials decide what to do next.
Jadallah conveyed the story to loved ones at the family reunification center this morning shortly before they met with President Joe Biden. After hearing the facts, some family members urged officials to execute a controlled demolition of the standing building so the search can continue.
"Just tear that building down," one relative said during the briefing. He added: "We can't have things stop the search for the loved ones who are there, who are hoping to be found alive."
Structural engineer Scott Nacheman, who is working at the site with FEMA, told the families there is a strong chance the building will indeed be demolished.
"One of our concepts of operations is exactly what you're talking about," Nacheman told them. "And the reason it hasn't been possibly pursued further at this point is we didn't want to cause any more damage or destruction to the individuals who are trapped in the low portion....We're now getting to a point in the operation where we're exploring the next phase. One of those possibilities, a very highly likely possibility, is what you just discussed."
But Nacheman noted that demolishing the building could disturb the existing mound, potentially harming anyone alive underneath, as well as adding more debris to the pile that would hamper the search further. He said shoring up the standing building has been considered, but there are "parts of the building we don't believe we can shore."
A second family member told Nacheman that she favored demolishing the building.
"I understand that demolishing the building is a risk but not demolishing that building is a risk," she said. "Every minute we wait for that building and assess, we are losing time. We can't be waiting and assessing forever. Maybe it's time to take a risk….If we continue waiting, our chances of saving anybody are going to zero."
It was risk-taking that apparently led to the destabilization of the building this morning, according to Jadallah. Rescuers were aware that the debris pile might be crucial in keeping the standing building stable, but they decided to move some of the nearby debris, in part because the area next to the building is one of the places in the rubble most likely to have void spaces large enough for someone to survive within.
"They began working and of course, at 2:13 in the morning, I get the phone call that part of the building started to shake as a result of some of the debris that was removed," Jadallah told families.
It's the latest impediment to a search that has been plagued by dire challenges, including a major fire under the rubble. Rainfall has not only at times slowed the work and caused search dogs to lose the trail of human tissue and blood, but it's also added weight to the exposed standing building, possibly increasing its instability.
And this morning, there was more bad news: Tropical Storm Elsa
appears to be heading toward South Florida and could arrive at the beginning of next week.