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SURFSIDE, Fla. – President Biden spent three hours on Thursday comforting the families of the deceased or missing under the rubble of a collapsed housing estate near Miami Beach, saying “the wait is unbearable” for tormented relatives than the crews a desperate search halted much of the day fearing that the rest of the complex might collapse as well.
In remarks after the private meeting, which was held in one of the hotel’s ballrooms, Mr. Biden said the families were “going through hell”. Many have been waiting for more than a week to see if someone is still alive under concrete and steel.
“I was sitting with a woman who had just lost her husband and baby boy and I didn’t know what to do,” said the president. “I was with another family who lost almost the entire family, cousins, brothers, sisters. And to watch them, and they pray and ask and God let a miracle happen. “
For Mr Biden, dealing with the greatest national tragedy since taking office was made more difficult by the fact that he could neither praise those who were still missing, nor raise high hopes for the missing. “You know the chances are getting a little smaller every day,” said the president. “But at least they want to recover the bodies. They want to recover the corpses. “
Eighteen people died in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South and up to 145 people remain missing, numbers that have remained unchanged since Wednesday.
Mr. Biden said many of the family members asked “basic heartbreaking” questions: Would they be able to recover the bodies of loved ones so they could bury them? If not, what should you do?
He added that families understood the decision to suspend the search Thursday amid the risks to rescue teams.
The president arrived in Florida hours after rescue workers were pulled from the heap of rubble over concerns that the rest of the building could collapse. Although the search resumed hours later, the delay was another setback to a search that had been slow and without hopeful news for days.
“You work in a very, very unsafe environment,” said Alan R. Cominsky, the head of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, who described a large hanging pillar that threatened to destabilize the remaining structure, as well as movement in concrete slabs and the rubble which led to the interruption of the rescue work. “I couldn’t pinpoint a specific incident.”
The northeast portion of the building overlooking the beach fell to the ground last week while other units remained standing. But after days of intense searching, the scene seemed calm for much of Thursday, with cranes frozen over the rubble.
“It’s a little heartbreaking, a little overwhelming,” said Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, were missing. “I see – I’ve seen the page. I understand how terrible the destruction is, but at the same time my mother and grandmother are under it. “
Miami-Dade Fire Department officials said on Twitter that the decision to resume the search was made after consulting civil engineers. Rescue workers returned to the rubble around 4:45 p.m., said Miami-Dade County’s Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
“The search for missing relatives is still in the foreground of our activities”, Post of the fire brigade said. Local officials are also monitoring the approach of Tropical Storm Elsa, although they warned that its path was still unclear.
Even before the break, the search had progressed slowly. The bodies of two sisters were pulled from the rubble Wednesday when the death toll rose to 18. Lucia Guara (10) and her sister Emma Guara (4), along with their mother Anaely, were among the four victims identified by the authorities on Wednesday evening. Rodriguez, 42. Rescue workers also found the body of Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21. On Thursday evening, the authorities announced the identification of another victim recovered on Wednesday, Magaly Elena Delgado, 80.
Condominium collapse in Miami
The president praised rescue workers as well as local and state officials, saying their collaboration was remarkable – and he used the moment to celebrate a rare case of bipartisanism. Mr. Biden praised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, one of its harshest critics. Mr. DeSantis returned the compliment, saying that Mr. Biden “saw the gravity of this tragedy from day one”. Mr Biden said the federal government will cover all of the cost of the first 30 days of the restoration.
He said he told the families that “we are here for you as one nation”. Later, he and the first lady, Jill Biden, went to a memorial wall and looked at pictures of some of the victims and notes that were left for them – a scene reminiscent of New York almost 20 years ago, after September 11, 2001 Attacks brought down the World Trade Center. The makeshift memorial is near the site of the collapse, and the Bidens left a bouquet of white flowers under a sign that baptized the memorial as the “Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial.”
Haunted by scorching heat and relentless storms, the memorial was adorned with flowers, missing persons posters, prayer candles and letters of encouragement for the families and rescue workers. Rescue workers have recovered toys and cuddly toys from the construction site, which are still dusty from the rubble.
Mr. Biden is familiar with the role of comforter. His successful campaign for the presidency was based in part on his ability to show empathy for those who often escaped President Donald J. Trump, particularly amid a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
Although his session with family members was closed to the news media, a video of Mr Biden posted by one of the family members appeared to show him speaking about the grief he was feeling after his wife and daughter had been around for almost half a year died in a car accident – a century ago.
“The waiting, the waiting is unbearable,” he told the families, later reminding them to wait and see if his sons would survive the accident.
A White House official said the president went from table to table to speak to every family seated in the room. The officer said that Dr. Biden also had individual conversations with family members.
Mr Biden said he stayed in the room until everyone who wanted to speak to him had the opportunity.
Erick de Moura, a resident of the building who spent the night of the collapse at his girlfriend’s home, praised Mr Biden as he and other survivors and families of the victims walked out of the ballroom at the St. Regis Bal Harbor Resort.
“For him, taking the time, the way he is, just walking around and talking to every single family, it’s just a great achievement and we really appreciate it. It comforts us, ”said Mr de Moura.
The president was joined by Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans. In addition to Mr. DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, MP Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, and Ms. Levine Cava in attendance.
The president also met with a group of rescue workers, including firefighters and search and rescue teams, who had been working on the site of the disaster over the past week.
At a second memorial, which was erected near a church, some onlookers gathered to pay their respects and watch the President’s motorcade. A woman carefully removed flowers that had wilted from age and rainwater from the chain link fence and placed a fresh white rose next to black and white laminated photos of the missing and deceased.
Wendy Marra, 38, who lives in the area, wiped her tears away before pinning a work of art on the fence.
“The whole world is here,” she said as she sat on the nearby grass, thinking about the people she saw delivering food or walking on the beach and the building she used to stare through her bedroom window.
“Biden just wants to show his respect,” she said. “It means a lot that everyone comes together.”
Daniel Hadar, chief rabbi of the Temple Moses Sephardic Congregation of Florida, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach, said the tone of Mr. Biden’s meeting signaled a departure from other family meetings over the past week. More than a dozen members of the synagogue, just a few kilometers from the Champlain Towers, were in the building at the time of the collapse.
“This is the first time I see something: consolation,” said Rabbi Hadar. While the rabbi has seen families express their anger and frustration at the rescue process at previous meetings with officials, this time the families expressed “peace and appreciation.”
Emily Cochrane reported by Surfside, and David E. singer and Michael D. Shear from Washington. Sophie Kasakove and Giulia Heyward Coverage from Surfside contributed. Mitch Smith also contributed to reporting.