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The Rescue Mission In Surfside, Fla., Turns To A Recovery Phase

NOEL KING, HOST:

The search for survivors in Surfside, Fla., has ended. At this point, 54 people are confirmed dead. Work crews will now start a recovery phase in which they focus on trying to find the remains of people who are believed to be missing - more than 80 people.

NPR's Brian Mann is in Miami Beach this morning. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: This must have been a very difficult decision. How was it made?

MANN: Yeah, town officials say they conferred with the first responders and the search crews who are out there on that debris pile. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said after two weeks of this round-the-clock effort, these search and rescue teams have just done everything possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: They ran into a building they were told could collapse, and they braved fire, smoke, torrential rain in the hopes of finding people alive. At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search and rescue mission.

MANN: And, you know, officials kept saying, day by day, they hoped and prayed for some kind of miracle here. But heartbreaking as it is, that just did not happen. And so last night, they said it was time to put that emotion aside and start this pivot.

KING: Even as they start to pivot, there are families who are still waiting.

MANN: Yeah. And after the announcement last night, there was this moment of silence first and then a kind of impromptu ceremony that happened at the memorial site. Rescue workers, clergy and some family members - they just came together. And one of those family members, Martin Langesfeld, talked about losing his sister and brother-in-law, and then he thanked these rescue crews that have been working out in that debris field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LANGESFELD: The first responders and everyone who stood behind this put their blood, their heart and their souls behind this, and we were together as a community. So I want to truly say thank you. We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but we did become a family.

MANN: And, Noel, officials here say this moment did not come as a surprise for these families. They were informed for days that hopes were fading.

KING: It's worth asking why, because there are similar disasters, like after earthquakes, where buildings have collapsed and then people have survived for many days, even weeks, in the rubble. In this case, why not give it more time? Is this different?

MANN: Yeah. Miami-Dade County Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said it is different. He spoke about this last night. He pointed out how devastating this collapse turned out to be, with floor after floor just pancaking densely together, leaving no spaces for survivors. He described taking family members to show them that there just weren't any of those voids or cavities where they hoped survivors might be able to hold on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAY JADALLAH: Fourteen days of looking for voids - that's what we've been doing. You know, God, you know, give us at least a large enough void to find a victim. And, you know, we just couldn't. Just - there was no voids. I mean, it was unprecedented.

MANN: And Jadallah said there have been no signs of life in that debris pile since really the first hours after the collapse.

KING: OK. So what is happening there today now?

MANN: Well, the crews are still working round the clock. They're finding victims and returning them to their families. That's still very important work. Officials say they believe up to 86 people may still be missing, though that's not a firm number. They're asking the public to come forward with any additional information about missing persons. Miami-Dade County crime scene investigators are out there working with rabbis and other clergy to find remains and begin the process of confirming identities.

KING: Do you have any new information about what caused this to happen?

MANN: Yeah, we don't know much, Noel. The probes are expanding. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced an expanded grand jury probe yesterday. But right now, still more questions than answers about what caused this condo to come crashing down.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann in Miami Beach. Thank you, Brian.

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