SURFSIDE, Fla. — The rumble that awoke people inside the Champlain Towers condo complex just north of Miami Beach after midnight on Thursday sounded like thunder, another summer storm rolling in. It was, horrifyingly, the collapse of half the building, which proceeded to pancake into the ground as if struck by an earthquake.
Residents like Barry Cohen, 63, and his wife had to be rescued from their balcony in a cherry picker in the dark. The light of day revealed utter devastation: a beachfront high-rise with its insides turned out as some of the most elite search-and-rescue crews in the country tried to find signs of life in a heap of dusty rubble that appeared unsurvivable.
“I was screaming to them, ‘Get us out of here!’” Mr. Cohen, a lawyer, recalled.
The sudden collapse of the condominium left at least one person dead and 99 unaccounted for, an enormous number that led to an intense search operation above and below ground with trained dogs and sonar, looking for signs — any hint — of life in a disaster site that from afar appeared devastatingly still.
“We still have hope to be able to identify additional survivors,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said. He said search-and-rescue teams had “made contact” with some people in the wreckage of the 12-story, 136-unit residential complex. Emergency workers heard “sounds and bangs” late Thursday afternoon, said Ray Jadallah, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue assistant chief — but no voices.
Early on, rescuers saved one boy whose fingers wiggled from atop the jumble of concrete and steel as he cried for help and passers-by tried to climb up to get him.
“We could see his arm sticking out,” said Nicholas Balboa, 31, of Phoenix, who raced to the scene of destruction from about a block away, where he was visiting the home of his father. As the boy cried out, Mr. Balboa used his cellphone flashlight to flag emergency workers. “He was just saying: ‘Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.’”
Emergency workers determined they could not find a way into the unstable mountain of wreckage from the top and found ways to tunnel into it from the parking garage underneath the building, Chief Jadallah said.
Teams of 60 to 75 firefighters plus an urban search-and-rescue squad were rotating in and would continue working into the night, he said. “This process is slow and methodical.”
The stunning partial collapse of the residential building at 8777 Collins Ave. left few answers and considerable questions about how a 40-year-old condo could have suddenly crumbled as its residents rested in their beds.
Fifty-five units were affected by the collapse, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said. The building was home to a mix of retirees and well-off professionals with young families.
The wrecked interiors of what were once people’s homes gaped open toward the ocean: Broken air-conditioning units. An empty bunk bed. Linens waving in the wind.
At one point, clouds of dust swirled through the scene as a fire broke out at the site. Earlier, the rubble had been pelted with rain.
Three patients were taken to Aventura Hospital and Medical Center and two to Jackson Memorial Hospital Ryder Trauma Center.
President Biden said that he had spoken with local officials and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to assist as needed. “I say to the people of Florida: Whatever help you want, the federal government can provide,” he said.
Public records show the building was constructed in 1981 and coming up on its required 40-year recertification. It was about to undergo extensive repairs for rusted steel and damaged concrete, said Kenneth S. Direktor, a lawyer who represents the resident-led association that operates the Champlain Towers South building.
Mr. Direktor said he had seen nothing to suggest that Thursday’s collapse had anything to do with the issues identified in the engineering review. He said any waterfront building of that age would have some level of corrosion and concrete deterioration from ocean salts that can penetrate structures and begin rusting steel components. If there had been anything to suggest that a collapse was possible, Mr. Direktor said, the process would have been handled much differently.
In 2015, a resident filed a lawsuit against the condo association, alleging that poor maintenance of the building allowed water to damage her unit after entering cracks through the outside wall.
Daniel Wagner, a lawyer for the resident, said in an email that the issue related to the “structural integrity and serious disrepair” of the building.
The complex also showed signs of land subsidence in the 1990s, according to an analysis of space-based radar in 2020 by a Florida International University professor.
Some residents reported feeling ground reverberations when another building nearby had been demolished and a new one constructed in its place.
Adriana Gonzalez Chi said she told her brother, Edgar Gonzalez, who lived in Champlain Towers and was missing, numerous times that the place did not feel safe, in part because of frequent complaints about leaks and mold.
“About a month ago I was standing on the balcony and saying, ‘This is not safe,’” she said. “I looked at my niece and said, ‘If you feel the building tremble, run.’”
Her niece, Deven, 16, did try to run on Thursday with her mother, Angela Gonzalez, Deven Gonzalez told her aunt. As they did, they fell four stories, from the ninth to the fifth floor. The mother and daughter were pulled from the rubble and taken to a hospital, Ms. Gonzalez Chi said.
Angela Gonzalez, a psychologist who works with children who have suffered trauma, was in a medically induced coma and had a lacerated liver and injuries to her hip, pelvis and knees, her sister-in-law said. Deven Gonzalez, a volleyball player at Miami Senior High School, had surgery for a fractured left leg.
“She lost consciousness and was under some rubble, and was banging on metal for them to hear her,” Ms. Gonzalez Chi said of her niece. “And her mom must have been nearby.”
When the Champlain Towers project was proposed in the late 1970s, people were flocking to South Florida and developers were looking to build larger complexes to accommodate demand, said Daniel Ciraldo, the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League.
Advertisements in The Miami Herald in 1980 touted the Champlain Towers as “elegant condominium residences” that could be had for as little as $148,000.
“Your ultimate comfort has been anticipated: saunas, heated pool, television security system, valet parking and much more,” one ad said. Some of the building’s more than 136 units have recently sold for more than $1 million.
The collapse transformed picturesque and tight-knit Surfside, population 5,600, with its Art Deco hotels and mid-rise residential buildings, into a dazed scene of disaster and grief. Families flocked to a community center for news about missing loved ones.
The Surfside Community Center, a glass-and-concrete complex a block from the beach with swimming pools and putty-colored lounge chairs, was filled with families and friends clutching cellphones, desperate for information about the missing. Sometimes they would call the phone numbers of the people they believed were trapped in the building and had not heard from yet.
Every hour or so, Bob Ellis or his girlfriend would call the numbers for Dr. Ruslan Manashirov and his wife, Nicole, who lived in a big unit on the seventh floor with a view of the beach. The Manashirovs’ phones rang, but no one answered.
Mr. Ellis could do little else than wait, his face heavy with worry. He was asked what the chances were that his friends were alive.
“Honestly, I don’t think so,” he said, as he began to cry. “There’s no way.”
Mr. Ellis had attended the Manashirovs’ wedding in May at a nearby country club. She was a nurse, he a general practitioner. She was from Pittsburgh, his roots were in Azerbaijan. She called him “Little Baku.”
“We just want closure, you know?” Mr. Ellis said. “I don’t expect good news. I would love it, but. …”
Rachel Spiegel waited to hear from her mother, Judy, who lived on the sixth floor. Judy Spiegel had texted her daughter excitedly on Wednesday night to say she had finally found the Disney dress that Rachel’s 4-year-old daughter, Scarlett, had asked for as a gift.
On Thursday, Rachel Spiegel arrived in Surfside at 5:30 a.m. seeking information about her mother. Her father, who was in California on business, was headed home. Her brothers were also en route, from Orlando and North Carolina.
About 35 people were rescued from the intact part of the building shortly after the collapse, and two were pulled from the rubble, Chief Jadallah said. It was unclear how many people were in the building overnight and whether all the units were occupied.
Erick Demora would have been home on the 10th floor of the collapsed side of Champlain Towers but had spent the night at his girlfriend’s — a rarity for him in the middle of the week — after watching the Brazil-Colombia Copa América match.
The area has a robust Jewish community and longtime ties to South America from decades past when families kept beach apartments there, and many Jewish and South American residents were reported to be among the missing, including at least six members of the Shul, a Chabad synagogue.
“We’re dealing with an unimaginable, horrible tragedy,” Rabbi Sholom Lipskar said.
Sergio Barth tried by phone all morning to reach his brother Luis Barth, 51, who had been visiting from Colombia with his wife and daughter. No response.
Relatives of Paraguay’s first lady and an Argentine couple with a 6-year-old daughter were among those unaccounted for, according to South American officials, news reports and relatives. Paraguay’s foreign minister, Euclides Acevedo, identified the missing relatives of President Mario Abdo Benítez’s family as Luis Pettengill, a cattle rancher, and his wife, Sophia López Moreira — a sister of the first lady, Silvana López Moreira. An employee of the family and the couple’s three children are also missing, he said.
Lisandro Sabanés, a spokesman for Argentina’s foreign ministry, said that at least nine Argentines who were believed to have been in the building were unaccounted for.
A Chilean man, Claudio Bonnefoy, is also among those missing, according to his daughter, Pascale Bonnefoy. Ms. Bonnefoy, a Chilean journalist who writes for The New York Times, said her father, who is 85, lives in an apartment on the side of the building that collapsed. He lived with his wife, María Obias-Bonnefoy.
“Their apartment is in the rubble,” Ms. Bonnefoy said.
Along the beach in front of the remains of the building, a crowd of people gathered throughout the day somberly gazing at the rubble.
Raysa Rodriguez, 59, who lives in the part of the building that remained standing, said she was awakened by what she thought was an earthquake. She then escaped down an emergency stairwell and off a second-floor balcony onto a rescue ladder.
“When I opened the door, I’m like, ‘There’s no more building,’” said Ms. Rodriguez, who has owned a ninth-floor unit in the building for nearly 20 years. “They are not going to be able to find those people.”
Mr. Cohen, the lawyer rescued via crane, said he and his wife were asleep when he heard what sounded like a loud thunderclap. When they opened the door to their unit, “It looked like it had been hit by a missile.”
“I am always happy to be alive,” Mr. Cohen said, “but I’m even happier today.”
Patricia Mazzei and Richard Fausset reported from Surfside. Joseph B. Treaster, William P. Davis, Johnny Diaz, Giulia Heyward, Michael Majchrowicz, Neil Reisner and Amanda Rosa contributed reporting from Surfside; Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro; Daniel Politi from Buenos Aires; and Santi Carneri from Asunción, Paraguay. Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Jenny Gross, Christine Hauser, Sophie Kasakove and Alexandra E. Petri also contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.