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11 Are Confirmed Dead In Condo Collapse As Rescue Crews Work Tirelessly

NOEL KING, HOST:

We have entered into day six of a rescue operation in Surfside, Fla. Eleven people are now confirmed dead. And around 150 people are still missing. Rescue workers from Israel and Mexico have joined the search.

NPR's Jasmine Garsd is in Miami Beach. She's been talking to responders. Hi, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What's the mood like at the site of the collapse?

GARSD: Well, there is a mix of optimism and hope. You hear it all day long from local officials and search crews. But at the same time, you also sense that reality is setting in for some people. As you say, there are about 150 people that are, quote, "unaccounted for." And complicating the search efforts are thunderstorms and the stifling heat.

At a press conference last night, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, thanked all of the rescue teams from around the state, as well as crews from Israel and Mexico that have come to assist. And he talked about the hope that crews feel at this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE PEPE DIAZ: These people that are coming to help our people out here have the hope to find people alive. And that's something we cannot stop. We have to continue with that hope.

GARSD: We should point out - in past earthquakes around the world, search crews have pulled people out alive from buildings seven or eight days after the fact.

KING: And I imagine that's what's underpinning some of the hope here. Tell me about the rescue workers you've been meeting.

GARSD: Well, it was raining heavily when I met Jonathan Blinkey. He's a supervisor with the Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force. He's working nights here. He still had grime under his nails. He looked tired with glassy eyes. It was his fifth day of work. And he's been out and about for around 18 hours. Like most of this team, he is more used to hurricane recovery. This has been different.

JONATHAN BLINKEY: One of the main things that stood out to me and the pile was - and - is that, once - if we found a victim, pretty much the whole site shuts down. And we'll line our entire crew from all the different task forces - there's, like, eight - and pay their respects. The whole pile will shut down all the equipment. And it was pretty, I guess you could say, emotional.

GARSD: It's also physically grueling work. Most of the teams work 12 hours on, 12 hours off. I sat with Captain Adam Brown from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and Jonathan Hamilton from Tampa Fire Rescue as they were taking a break, scarfing down dinner. They told me they are also on a steady diet of ibuprofen for the aches. These crews specialize in removing the large concrete sections. They use heavy-lift equipment at disaster sites like this one. Hamilton says, this is a bigger and more complex collapse than they typically get called in to handle.

JONATHAN HAMILTON: At, like, 6 a.m., I was kind of looking around. And I was thinking, man, I'm really tired, you know? And I looked around. I think I could see it in a bunch of guys' eyes. They're the same - same situation. But the sun came up. And once the sun came up, I feel like everybody's got a second wind. And everybody just started, you know, pounding away.

GARSD: It's the magnitude of the disaster but also the uninterrupted nature of the rescue work that is challenging. Hurricanes allow rescue workers breaks, downtime. A collapsed building the size of this 12-story condominium is a race against time as they search for the missing.

Captain Brown says it's also a really delicate balancing act.

ADAM BROWN: Every time we move something - a rock, a boulder, a piece of metal - it changes the whole dynamic of the entire pile of rubble. But it is a very unsafe thing to do. You're talking about thousands of tons of material. So we do have to take our time.

GARSD: The process isn't just physically slow. But they're trying to be respectful. Blinkey says, they are just not digging through rubble. They're sifting through thousands of fragmented and shattered pieces of people's lives.

BLINKEY: Once we start getting through the roof and the layers - and the individual floors are a little bit different. And then that gets into personal belongings, pictures of their kids and their, you know, wedding pictures and stuff like that. It makes it a little bit easier for the family.

GARSD: And, Noel, all of those belongings are logged, given to forensic investigators and eventually will be returned to the families.

KING: OK. That's a little bit of good news. Let me ask you lastly - The Wall Street Journal today is reporting about something that happened at that tower last April. What's the story?

GARSD: The president of the Champlain South Towers Condo Association told residents in April their building was in desperate disrepair and urged them to pay the $15 million in assessments needed to fix structural problems.

KING: OK. NPR's Jasmine Garsd in Miami Beach - thank you, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.