Fire hinders rescue efforts in Florida building collapse

A still-smoldering fire in the rubble of a 12-storey building that collapsed near the US city of Miami this week has complicated rescue efforts, as officials say 159 people remain unaccounted for.

Emergency workers on Saturday continued to search for potential survivors beneath a mountain of rubble at the site of Thursday’s building collapse in Surfside, a town near Miami, which left at least four people dead.

Rescuers used infrared technology, water and foam to battle the blaze, whose source was unclear.

During a news conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the smoke has posed the biggest challenge. She described the fire as “very deep” and said rescuers faced “incredible difficulties” because of the flames.

“The stench is very thick,” added Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking alongside the mayor.

Emergency crews continue search and rescue operations for survivors, in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, on June 26 [Marco Bello/Reuters]

At midday, acrid smoke billowed from a second-storey balcony in the portion of the building still standing, as rescue workers hosed down the rubble to manage the dust.

“The biggest thing now is hope,” Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said. “That’s what’s driving us. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”

Meanwhile, a newly released 2018 report showed that an engineer found evidence of major structural damage beneath the pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage of the condominium.

The engineer, Frank Morabito, warned that the waterproofing installed below the pool deck had failed due to a major error in design.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas,” he wrote. “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”

It was not immediately clear whether the damage described in the report was in any way connected with the building’s collapse about 1:30am local time (0530 GMT) on Thursday. The building had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied, officials said. Roughly half appear to have collapsed.

Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Surfside on Saturday, said investigators will factor the engineer’s report into their probe into what brought down the building.

“Out of caution, county officials here say that they are launching an immediate review of all other buildings of similar age or older – this was a 40-year-old building – throughout the county,” Zhou-Castro said.

“But of course, as for those family members of the 159 possible souls still trapped beneath this rubble, this is an agonising wait – not only as they wait for answers to how this happened but more importantly answers to the fate of their loved ones.”

Rachel Spiegel’s mother, 66-year-old Judy Spiegel, lived on the sixth floor of the building. Speaking alongside her siblings, she said on Saturday that the family was “trying to hold it together”.

“I know my mom is a fighter,” Spiegel said. “I know she loves us. I know she doesn’t want to give up. So, you know, it’s day three, so it’s hard.”

A couple at the beach reacts near the building that collapsed in Surfside [Marco Bello/Reuters]

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