Officials pause operations at Surfside collapse site to focus on demolition ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa

As search and rescue operations at the site of a partial building collapse in Surfside, Florida, stretched into a tenth day Saturday, authorities announced they would pause operations to prepare for the likely demolition of what remains of the Champlain Towers South condo building.

“There is a threat to the standing building,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday night, adding because of that, engineers and the demolition team paused operations around 4 p.m. Saturday.

“We’re waiting on instructions from the engineers … before we can safely resume,” she explained.

At least 24 people are confirmed dead in the collapse — with two victims pulled from the rubble Friday night. The victims include four- and ten-year-old sisters, an elderly couple, and the daughter of a firefighter.

Nicole Mejias told CNN Saturday that five of her family members were in the Champlain Towers South building when it collapsed, including 7-year-old Stella Cattarossi, the daughter of a Miami firefighter. Cattarossi’s body was found Thursday night.

“We just miss them so much already, we wish this tragedy didn’t happen, and will always remember them,” Mejias said.

As of Saturday evening, 121 people remained unaccounted for in the tragedy, while 191 have been accounted for, Levine Cava said.

Now officials continue to work around the clock to make sure the site is secured ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa, which is tracking toward South Florida with heavy rain and strong winds expected to impact the coast late Sunday night into early Monday morning.

Race against the storm

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for 15 counties on Saturday — including Miami-Dade county — due to Tropical Storm Elsa.

Tropical Storm watches have already been issued for parts of the Florida Keys and “additional watches are anticipated for Florida’s West Coast,” DeSantis said. “We’re preparing for the risk of isolated tornadoes, storm surge, heavy rainfall and flash flooding.”

“The state has begun executing contingency plans for the Tropical Storm Elsa and Surfside co-response,” he added.

Elsa was a Category 1 hurricane Friday and early Saturday but weakened to a tropical storm as it took aim at the Dominican Republic and Haiti. While the forecast remains uncertain for the continued track and intensity, the potential for weather-related issues at the collapse site is influencing authorities’ decisions on the ground.

“We’re still very hopeful that we can do the demolition before the storm,” Levine Cava explained. “We are proceeding as quickly as we possibly can.”

Officials don’t yet know the exact timing of the demolition. “Engineers are on site and they’re still conducting their due diligence, so we don’t have an exact time frame at this time,” Levine Cava said Saturday night.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said, “The fear was that the hurricane may take the building down for us and take it down in the wrong direction, on top of the pile where we have victims.”

Burkett adding that the demolition “will allow rescue workers to pour all over the entire site without fear of any danger from falling debris or falling buildings.”

Demolition plans

Plans to demolish the remaining portion of the building were announced late in the week as rescuers continued to scour the debris for victims.

Search and rescue operations were briefly suspended on Thursday after engineers noted shifting on the debris pile that posed a danger to the rescue crews, officials said.

After operations resumed later that day, authorities confirmed in a press conference that demolition would likely be necessary in order to keep rescue crews and the collapse site safe for further searches

Levine Cava announced Saturday the firm Controlled Demolition, Inc. will handle the demolition of the remaining Champlain Towers’ South structure.

“They have done other large demolitions,” Levine Cava said, adding that the company was “evaluating the scene right now.”

On Saturday, the governor expressed his support for the demolition plan ahead of Elsa’s impact.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day that building is too unsafe to let people go back,” DeSantis said.

He explained he believes it would be best for the building to be down before the storm arrives, saying, “With these gusts potentially, it would create a really big hazard.”

Levine Cava said the county won’t need to evacuate any additional buildings ahead of the demolition but they will be announcing a perimeter for the demolition area.

Burkett also assured residents Saturday that demolition shouldn’t impact other buildings in the area.

Burkett said he’s taken calls from concerned citizens who are worried about potential impacts to their buildings from the demolition as well as environmental impacts from the debris.

Materials from the debris pile were tested by a company hired by the structural engineers and “there were no significant issues in the debris,” Burkett told reporters Saturday night.

Investigators trying to determine what happened

A thorough review of the debris will help officials determine what happened and hopefully prevent any other collapses like this from occurring.

Since part of the building fell more than a week ago, complaints about construction on a high rise next door have come to light through interviews with survivors, family members of victims, and documents obtained by CNN.

On Saturday, CNN learned the developer behind Eighty Seven Park, a high-rise recently erected next door to Champlain Towers South, offered the Surfside tower’s condominium board $400,000 amid complaints over the construction.

Construction on that building had been the source of complaints, including at least one from a condo board member to a Surfside building official in January 2019, documents obtained by CNN show.

Under the agreement sent by the group behind the luxury building, residents of Champlain Towers South would have had to release the developer from liability and the condominium board would have had to publicly support the development in letters sent to the town of Surfside and Miami Beach, where Eighty Seven Park was being built, in exchange for the payment, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The agreement was presented in 2019, according to the Washington Post, who first reported on it.

It was never signed by the Champlain Towers South condominium board, Max Marcucci, a spokesman for the board told CNN.

On Friday, Robert McKee, an attorney for one of the Champlain Towers South residents suing the condominium board, suggested in a court hearing that the civil plaintiffs should investigate the neighboring building, calling the developer “a potential significant possible defendant.”

CNN has reached out to the developer behind Eighty Seven Park for comment on the proposed agreement.