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(Reuters) — Rescue crews near Miami began the daunting task of searching through tons of rubble for victims and anyone who may have survived the collapse of part of an oceanfront residential tower early on Thursday, with at least one person already found dead and more than 50 unaccounted for.
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 “snowbirds” who spend the winter months in the state of Florida.
Officials said the building, built in 1981, was going through a recertification process requiring repairs and that another building was being newly constructed next door, although the cause of the collapse remained unclear.
"We have 51 people that were assumed to have been there, but you don't know between vacations or anything else, so we’re still waiting," Ms. Heyman told CNN by phone. "The hope is still there, but it's waning."
Jenny Urgelles woke up to the news that her parents' building had collapsed. She called them, but both their phones went straight to voicemail, she told WSVN 7 News.
"I am holding on to hope. I very desperate to know what's happening," she told the local Fox affiliate.
A fire official said 35 people were rescued from the building in Surfside, a seaside enclave of 5,700 residents on a barrier island across Biscayne Bay from the city of Miami, including two who were pulled from the rubble as response teams used trained dogs and drones in a search for survivors.
Footage from WPLG Local 10, a Miami TV station, showed a rescue team pulling a boy from piles of debris and rebar, and firefighters using ladder trucks to rescue residents trapped on balconies.
The search and rescue effort was slowed by at least one fire that burned at the site as firefighters doused the rubble with water, local media reported.
Emergency responders and officials were still looking for people who might be in the rubble, as well as trying to identify residents not home at 1:30 a.m. (Eastern time), when an entire side of the building pulled away and fell to the ground below.
"We all woke up in the early morning hours to a tragic scene," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who toured the scene of the catastrophe on Thursday afternoon. "We still have hope to identify additional survivors."
At least six Paraguayans were among those unaccounted for, Paraguay's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, including the sister of Paraguay's first lady, the sister's husband Luis Pettengill and their three children.
Subject to various inspections
The Champlain Towers South had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It had been subject to various inspections recently due to the recertification process and the adjacent construction of a building called 88 Park, Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told Local 10.
"There were garage underground issues related to that, to make sure that it was done soundly," Commissioner Kesl said. "And, to my understanding, there were some cracks from that project - minor cracks - that were just patched up. Nothing, based on my understanding, to the magnitude that would indicate that there was a structural problem that could result in something so catastrophic."
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said construction work was being done on the roof of the Champlain Towers South but there was no indication that it caused the collapse.
"It's hard to imagine how this could have happened," Mayor Burkett told reporters. "Buildings just don't fall down."
Mayor Burkett said that part of the building with balconies facing the beach "pancaked" where one floor appears to have fallen atop another, cascading down.
"The back of the building, probably a third or more, is totally pancaked," he said.
Resident Barry Cohen and his wife were rescued from the building.
"At first it sounded like a flash of lightning or thunder," Mr. Cohen, a former vice mayor of Surfside and a resident of the building, told reporters at the scene. "But then it just kept on - steadily for at least 15 to 30 seconds - it just kept on going and going and going."
Mr. Cohen also said there had been construction for more than a month on the building's roof.
The Miami-Dade Police have assumed control of the investigation. More than 80 fire and rescue units responded, the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department wrote in a Twitter message early Thursday.
Eyewitness video obtained by Reuters showed neighbors gathering across the street from the rubble.
"This whole building here, it's completely gone," a person can be heard saying.
The Turkish province of Izmir has detained nine people in connection with building collapses following the 6.6-magnitude earthquake on Oct. 30, Daily Sabah reported. Construction contractors are among those detained for the collapse of more than a dozen buildings, as well as engineers responsible for inspecting the buildings and ensuring they adhere to construction regulations.