The search for victims in the Surfside condo collapse is being suspended this evening because demolition experts have begun work to bring down the standing building on the site, according to Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah.
The building, if the work goes smoothly, is expected to come down Monday morning, Jadallah told family members during Saturday's 5:30 p.m. briefing. Hundreds of search workers, including a team from Israel, will be confined to prep work at the site from now until the demolition occurs, he said.
The reason: Demolition workers, who are employed by a private company identified by the Miami Herald
as Controlled Demolition Inc. of Maryland, will be drilling large holes into supporting columns in order to plant explosives. That dangerous work that will increase the chances the building may collapse on its own.
"We cannot work on the pile," Jadallah said. "Based on the assessment, the number of holes they need to drill, and based on the number of columns they need to place the holes in, we're looking at probably at minimum Monday morning for the bringing down of the building."
Jadallah said demolition workers have already entered the building to start drilling holes in the first- and second-floor columns. He later added: "As they drill, the search will be suspended."
But shortly after, at a 7 p.m. press briefing, Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava seemed to contradict what was conveyed to families, leaving open the door to partial search operations while the demolition process continues.
"We will begin the search and rescue once again on any sections of the pile that are safe to access as soon as we're cleared," Cava said during the briefing.
The prep work will include placing a six-inch-thick neoprene covering over the entire mound to ensure that debris from the standing building's demolition will be separated from the existing pile.
For some family members in the room, that development finally extinguished all hope of finding their loved ones alive. If anyone had broken all odds and was still alive in the rubble, the neoprene — a highly durable form of synthetic rubber — would block all air and surely end their life.
One of the relatives in the room, who asked not to be named, broke into tears at the news.
"There's no hope," she said. "They have been breaking the news slowly to us. I don't think there's anybody left."
The entire search has been a slow and torturous process stymied by unforeseen challenges, including a large fire in the rubble early on and delays caused by rain and fears that the standing building might collapse.
Even when the search makes headway, the results have led only to more frustration, said Jadallah. He showed family members a close-up photograph of the mound on Saturday to illustrate just how compacted the pile is under rescuers' feet — so dense as to preclude any chance of the all-important "void spaces" required for one of the missing persons to have any chance at survival.
"As you see here, nothing more than a few inches in regards to voids," he said. "This is the issue we've had since day one. As we continue to chip away from the top and remove debris, we finally get to a floor only to realize the next floor and the next floor and the next floor literally doesn't have any voids."
The demolition of the standing building will allow rescuers to finally get into suspected void spaces in the area beside the wall, as well as access to the parking garage, where as many as six floors of rubble are crushed.
"From what we've seen so far...the family members we've pulled out appear to be in their bedrooms, appear to have been sleeping," he said.
In a room that had lost hope, those words provided some with the comforting thought that their loved ones may never have awakened to the nightmare happening around them at Champlain Towers South.