Surfside building collapse latest: Missing cat found near site as recovery effort continues

Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(SURFSIDE, Fla.) -- The death toll of the devastating partial collapse of a 12-story residential building in Surfside, Florida last month rose to 90, officials announced Sunday.

The recovery effort entered its 18th day on Sunday and officials said 62 victims are now identified, 217 people are accounted for, and 31 are potentially unaccounted for.

Officials would not provide an estimated timetable for the end of recovery efforts.

The disaster occurred on June 24 around 1:15 a.m. local time at the Champlain Towers South condominium in the small, beachside town of Surfside, about 6 miles north of Miami Beach. Approximately 55 of the oceanfront complex's 136 units were destroyed, according to officials. The rest of the building was demolished on Sunday night, due to concerns over structural integrity and an incoming tropical storm.

The death toll has soared since the remainder of the condo building was destroyed and no longer posed a threat to the recovery search area. On Monday the death toll stood at 28 and by Friday it rose to 79.

While there is still much recovery work to be done, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters family members and first responders took part in a memorial walk on Saturday night and paid tribute to everyone who has supported the efforts.

Levine Cava thanked the search and rescue teams who came from Israel and provided two commanders with keys to the city before they departed back home.

"We took a moment to celebrate and thank the men and women from all the search and rescue teams ... who have been working 24 hours a day for the last two and a half weeks," she said.

There was a "small piece of good news" Friday, officials said, revealing a missing cat named Binx was found near the wreckage and reunited with its owners on Friday, more than two weeks after the disaster.

"I'm glad that this small miracle could bring some light into the lives of a hurting family today and provide a bright spot for our whole community in the midst of this terrible tragedy," Levine Cava said.

The family of the pet lived on the ninth floor of the tower. A volunteer who was feeding cats in the area recognized Binx and brought him to a local animal shelter, where it was identified as one of the cats missing after the disaster, she said.

The black cat was brought to The Kitty Campus in Miami Beach Thursday night, and one of the survivors determined that it was her family's cat, the shelter said.

"All we needed was a ray of hope in this tragedy," Gina Nicole Vlasek, co-founder of The Kitty Campus, said in a post on Facebook. "We are so grateful to be able to help in any small way."

Eight additional victims have been identified, the Miami Dade Police Department said Friday, including 3-year-old Luis Lopez Moreira III, the youngest so far; the boy's father, Luis Pettengill, 36; and his mother, Sophia López Moreira, 36, the sister of Paraguay's first lady, Silvana López Moreira. Two other children in the family remain missing.

For over two weeks, hundreds of first responders carefully combed through the pancaked piles of debris in hopes of finding survivors. But no one has been found alive in the wreckage since the morning the building partially collapsed, and officials announced Wednesday evening that the search and rescue operation, in its 14th day, would shift to a recovery effort.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters that the decision was "a result of a consensus by those closest to the rescue efforts that the possibility of someone still alive is near zero."

To mark the somber move, a moment of silence was held Wednesday in honor of all the victims, of whom 53 have been identified. A candlelight vigil was held later that night at the memorial site for the victims.

Crews paused their work atop the piles early Thursday "for a brief moment of silence to honor the two-week mark since the collapse," according to Levine Cava. Several families who lost loved ones were also brought to the site to pay their respects Thursday, she said.

"We have now officially transitioned from search and rescue to search and recovery," Levine Cava said during a press conference Thursday morning. "The work continues with all speed and urgency. We are working around the clock to recover victims and bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can."

"We are taking as much care as ever to proceed to find victims in the rubble," she added.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters that crews "will identify every single person" who's found, and that officials also would continue to help the survivors and the families of the victims get back "on their feet as best as we possibly can."

On Friday, the Broward County Medical Office started coming on-site to assist Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department personnel and help teams rotate more frequently, Levine Cava said.

"It is very, very valuable and critical that we provide some relief to those men and women working in the medical examiner's office doing this vital work," the mayor said during a press briefing Friday afternoon.

Crews have hauled away more than 13 million pounds of concrete and debris from the vast scene, and the pile of rubble is "well below ground level," Burkett said Sunday. He said crews are starting to see cars in the parking lot and are moving the cars.

Officials said it could take several weeks to get to the bottom of the wreckage. Crews have been working virtually nonstop, with help from teams who came from across Florida and elsewhere in the United States as well as from abroad. However, their efforts were halted for almost an entire day last week due to safety concerns regarding the still-standing structure, prior to the demolition. Poor weather conditions have also forced them to temporarily pause working.

The cause of the partial collapse to a building that has withstood decades of hurricanes remains unknown and is under investigation. Built in the 1980s, the Champlain Towers South was up for its 40-year recertification and had been undergoing roof work -- with more renovations planned -- when it partially collapsed, according to officials.

Surveys and inspections of the surrounding buildings are still ongoing. Burkett told reporters that early results from core samples taken from Champlain Towers North, the sister building to the one that collapsed show the strength of the concrete is "very good and at or beyond the levels at which it should be."

Levine Cava asked members of the public to submit any photos or videos they have related to the collapse to the National Institute of Standards and Technology here.

"The magnitude of this tragedy is growing each and every day," Levine Cava said Friday.

Sunday, July 11, 2021 at 3:38PM by Morgan Winsor, Marlene Lenthang, Ivan Pereira and Meredith Deliso, ABC News Permalink