The three-week-long search for victims in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside is winding down, but the effort to identify remains found in the rubble continues.
The toll now stands at 95 bodies identified, after Miami-Dade County Police tweeted the name of the latest victim, Theresa Velasquez, 36, whose body was recovered July 8. Two people are still missing and 241 have been accounted for.
There are still challenges as search teams try to recover every victim, including water flooding the “bathtub” of the parking structure, which continues to leak and crack, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told The Miami Herald.
The numbers have fluctuated over the weeks as the system for reporting the dead and missing changed. On Tuesday, the death toll was reported to be 95, reflecting the recovery of another body from the rubble.
But officials are now only using the number of victims identified in the official toll. “At this point, it’s difficult,” Miami-Dade Police spokesman Carlos Rosario said. “There are human remains that are being identified … it’s a scientific process, and we don’t want to say a wrong number. We took a step back.”
Miami-Dade Police identified two more victims Friday: Maria Popa, 79, who was pulled from the rubble July 9, and Brad Cohen, 51, who was recovered July 7.
Popa’s husband, 82-year-old Mihai Radulescu, was identified Thursday. The couple owned Unit 404. Cohen’s brother, Gary, who was visiting the orthopedic surgeon from Alabama, was identified July 8.
Amid the recovery effort, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency investigating the collapse, released an update of its probe on Friday.
NIST is using remote sensing technology called lidar, drones and time-lapse cameras to aid its investigation. At least 200 pieces of debris, including columns, beams and pieces of concrete, have been tagged as evidence.
Investigators are also studying the “sister” condo, Champlain Towers North, as they attempt to understand why Champlain Towers South collapsed around 1:30 a.m. June 24. They’ve installed sensors on the building to measure vibrations.
While the investigations continue, an effort to start the process of selling the property was dialed back amid backlash.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman started the process earlier in the week, hoping selling the site, valued at over $100 million, would generate more cash for the survivors and victims families. But during a hearing Friday, he backed off a swift sale, saying he had heard from some in the community who want the site reserved for a memorial or redeveloped for the survivors to live in.
“Some people want it sold and the proceeds immediately distributed, some want to rebuild on the property,” said Michael Goldberg, a court-appointed attorney for the condo’s homeowner’s association, Local 10 News reported. “And some believe this is hallowed ground and that it should be forever a memorial.”
Hanzman said “all competing interests will be considered before any decision is made.”
“We are very concerned about how the process is going to work,” Oren Cytrynbaum, who owned Unit 905 next door to another, Unit 906, that belonged to his family from Canada, told the Herald. Those condos were in the front half of the building, which remained standing after the collapse but was later demolished by Miami-Dade County.
Cytrynbaum, a lawyer himself, said there are two groups of people, Champlain condo owners and injured or deceased victims, who must be reconciled: it’s “very hard to separate them” because “we know it’s going to be unfair.”