SURFSIDE, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — At least one person is dead and 99 people are unaccounted for after a sea-view side of a beachfront condo tower collapsed in a Miami-area town early Thursday morning, drawing a massive response from emergency services. Rescuers said at a news conference Thursday afternoon 102 people have been accounted for.
About half of the building’s 130 units collapsed, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.
The collapse tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs still left inside. Air conditioner units were hanging from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled. Search and rescue operations were still underway.
NewsNation confirmed with Miami-Dade police that at least 99 people were unaccounted for following the building collapse.
Officials were not willing to give a cause for why the building collapsed. Miami-Dade police will investigate that after the rescue operation ends.
“At this point we have engineers on site,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference. “It’s a structural engineering question.”
Sally Heyman, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner, said officials have been unable to make contact with 51 people who “supposedly” live in the building, home to a mix of people including families and part-time “snow birds” who spend the winter months in Florida.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned during a news conference that the building manager told him the tower was quite full and the death toll was likely to rise.
“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” he said.
As rescue crews continue to search for survivors, a small fire broke out in the remains of the building. NewsNation’s Brian Entin reported seeing smoke coming out from the site of the collapse.
In an afternoon press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis remarked that, “TV doesn’t do it justice… it’s a dramatic scene.”
Ten people were treated at the scene and two were brought to the hospital, one of whom died, Burkett said, adding that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.
Work is currently being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have caused the collapse. Authorities did not said what the cause may be.
An image posted on Miami Beach Police’s Twitter account showed a tangle of rubble with debris spilling down from what was left of the balconies of the building in the darkness.
“We’re on the scene so it’s still very active,” said Sgt. Marian Cruz of Miami Dade Fire Rescue. “What I can tell you is the building is twelve floors. The entire back side of the building has collapsed.”
In a statement sent to NewsNation, FEMA confirmed they have not sent federal crews to the condo building yet for search and rescue efforts. The Florida regional search and rescue teams have lead the response so far.
The collapse sent a cloud of debris through the neighborhood, coating cars up to two blocks away with a light layer of dust.
President Joe Biden Thursday told reporters he spoke with the mayor of Miami Dade as well as Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents that district.
“I say to the people of Florida, whatever help you want the federal government to provide. We’re waiting, just ask us. We’ll be there,” said Biden.
Photos and video from the scene show the collapse affected half the tower. Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area just outside the building. The department has yet to say what may have caused the collapse near 88th Street and Collins Avenue in Surfside.
Police blocked nearby roads, and scores of fire and rescue vehicles, ambulances and police cars swarmed the area.
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
He and his wife made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.
Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.
The sea-view condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside, on the beach. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000, the Associated Press reported. The town of Surfside has a population of just over 5,000.
The area is a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The community provides a stark contrast from bustle and glitz of South Beach with a slower paced neighborhood feel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.