Firefighters have declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed Florida apartment building, concluding a month of painstaking work removing layers of dangerous debris that were once piled several storeys high.
The June 24 collapse at Champlain Towers South in Surfside killed 97 people, with at least one more missing person yet to be identified.
The site has been mostly swept flat and the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.
Except during the early hours after the collapse, survivors never emerged. Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms.
They went through more than 14,000 tons of broken concrete, often working boulder by bounder, rock by rock, before declaring the mission complete.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the disaster site on Friday in a convoy of fire engines and other vehicles, slowly driving to their headquarters for a news conference to announce that the search was officially over.
At a ceremony, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky saluted the firefighters who worked 12-hour shifts while camping at the site.
“It’s obviously devastating. It’s obviously a difficult situation across the board,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women that represent Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.”
Officials have declined to clarify whether they have one additional set of human remains in hand that pathologists are struggling to identify or whether a search for that final set of remains continues.
If found, Estelle Hedaya, 54, would bring the death toll to 98.
Her younger brother Ikey has given DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the search efforts for himself.
“As we enter month two alone, without any other families, we feel helpless,” he told the Associated Press on Friday.
The collapse also fuelled a race to inspect other ageing residential towers in Florida and beyond, and raised broader questions about building safety.
Shortly after the collapse, it became clear that warnings about Champlain Towers South, which opened in 1981, had gone unheeded. A 2018 engineering report detailed cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking garage and other problems that would cost nearly 10 million dollars to fix.
The repairs did not happen, and the estimate grew to 15 million dollars this year as the owners of the building’s 136 units and its governing board squabbled over the cost, especially after a Surfside town inspector told them the building was safe.
In the weeks after the collapse, a 28-storey courthouse in central Miami, built in 1928, and two apartment buildings were closed after inspectors uncovered structural problems. They will remain shut until repairs are made.
Rescue crews worked tirelessly at the Surfside site, even when smoke and heat from a fire inside the building’s standing portion hampered their efforts.
They persisted when the temperatures reached 35C under the blazing sun, and carried on when Tropical Storm Elsa passed nearby and dumped torrential rain. They left the pile only when lightning developed.
The portion of the building that remained standing posed another grave threat as it loomed precariously above the workers. Authorities ordered it demolished on July 4.
In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, Mr Cominsky said.