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With Discovery Of 4 More Bodies, Confirmed Death Count In Condo Collapse Reaches 28

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Local officials say they still hope for a miracle in Surfside, Fla. Teams are at work again on the debris pile where the Champlain Towers South condo collapsed 12 days ago. After crews demolished the last remaining part of the complex last night, they found three more bodies. This afternoon, they have recovered a fourth body. That brings the confirmed death toll to 28 with more than a hundred people still missing. Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Elsa has brought rain and storms to South Florida.

NPR's Brian Mann is in Miami Beach following these developments. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's start with the demolition of that remaining tower last night. What did we learn today? Like, did it work?

MANN: Yeah. Officials say everything went exactly as they hoped. The demolition caused that massive structure to collapse inside the planned footprint. It did not fall on the existing pile where they're searching for victims. Speaking earlier today to reporters, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said this part of the operation was a success, and it's opened up new parts of the wreckage that had been off limits. Unfortunately, with this big storm, Elsa, rolling in, the weather has deteriorated again with rain and also lightning. Here's the mayor at a press conference this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: It does force us to stop to protect the safety of our first responders. But through the team's ongoing search efforts today, we have recovered another victim.

MANN: Yeah, so tough news there. And the plan now is to work whenever possible, but to halt operations as necessary because of that weather.

CHANG: Yeah. Let's talk about that - because the tropical storm is aiming right at Florida's west coast. How is that complicating efforts in Surfside right now?

MANN: Yeah. Here in South Florida, the weather has complicated this operation right from the beginning with heavy rains and lightning storms. And now this latest round of weather is another big challenge. Robert Molleda with the National Weather Service spoke at one of the press conferences today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROBERT MOLLEDA: These are showers and thunderstorms. We'll have some brief but gusty winds, and these winds could still be quite strong - as well as locally heavy rain and localized flooding.

MANN: And late this afternoon, Ailsa, they released a video. The fire department here released a video of crews working on that pile in howling wind with wane - rain just whipping through the palm trees. It's pretty tough out there.

CHANG: Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I mean, we should note that 12 days have passed now since the collapse. Are officials still calling this a rescue mission, or has the operation shifted to something more of a recovery effort at this point?

MANN: You know, they are adamant that a miracle is still possible. This effort is being conducted as a search, which means a lot of caution being taken in how that debris is shifted. But Mayor Levine Cava was pressed on this earlier today by reporters, and, yeah, she acknowledged 12 days is a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LEVINE CAVA: Obviously, the longer we go, the harder it is. However, we have just opened the possibility of search in an area where there may be voids. We are with these families as long as it takes to help them, not just for those who must bury loved ones, but beyond.

MANN: So the prayer is that there is some kind of pocket or shelter down in this rubble pile, possibly in that area that's just now being explored.

CHANG: One can only hope. Brian, the mayor mentioned families. Do you have any sense of how much these families are still seeing this as a rescue effort?

MANN: Yeah, the officials we're speaking to who've briefed the families and spent time with them say they're grieving, they're devastated, and there's no sign yet families are willing to see this operation pivot to a recovery effort. But at the same time, we're hearing these rescue crews have been taking real risks. There have been no serious injuries that we know of so far, but it's a hazardous site, more so now with this weather. So there is a balance here, a fine line that this community is trying to navigate.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, can you tell us, how are families being cared for right now?

MANN: Yeah. They're being given as much information as possible, and FEMA is here helping them begin the process of finding housing and moving on. You know, bringing down that building last night means even more families homeless now, lost a lot of their possessions. Some still have pets missing. There was a serious effort to make sure no animals were still alive in that building when it was demolished.

CHANG: Well, that's reassuring to hear.

As for the cause of this collapse, what do we know so far from the investigations?

MANN: Yeah, officials are keeping that kind of information very close. They're not offering new information, really. What we know is that as this search operation continues, investigators are also collecting evidence, interviewing people. Mayor Levine Cava said today that before that tower was demolished last night, a team of federal investigators actually mapped the structure using laser scanners.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LEVINE CAVA: They have been active on the site. They did lidar photographing of the existing structure before it came down. They have teams that had been exploring every part of the building that they had access to. So the investigation will continue over a long period of time.

MANN: And we do know that, you know, there were serious problems with concrete and other structural problems before the building fell. But what exactly triggered that sudden devastating collapse, it could be months before we have real answers.

CHANG: That is NPR's Brian Mann in Miami Beach. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.