SURFSIDE, Fla. – Families waited to hear news about missing loved ones Thursday as rescue efforts continued after a 12-story oceanside condo collapsed into a heap of rubble, leaving residents trapped and at least one person dead.
Dozens of people crammed into a room with chairs and blue gym mats on the floor at a reunification site set up by the American Red Cross. Family members and building residents listened to police give updates in anxious silence. Young children slept in blankets.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett confirmed at least one person died and Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo "Freddy" Ramirez III told families at the reunification center 99 people were unaccounted for.
Pablo Rodriguez, 40, a Miami native, said his 64-year-old mother and 88-year-old grandmother lived in the wing that collapsed.
Rodriguez told USA TODAY that he last spoke to his mom Wednesday to discuss the family weekend plans – the grandmother and great-grandmother were going to pick up Rodriguez’s 6-year-old son and spend the weekend together. Rodriguez had planned to surprise his grandmother for her 89th birthday next month with brunch at a nice restaurant.
“I came to the center, but I have no hope,” Rodriguez said in tears.
Nicolas Fernandez waited for news about close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to help the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones," Fernandez said.
Authorities described a desperate scene in which rescuers tried to save a child trapped in a garage who was discovered by a rescue dog, the Miami Herald reported. Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the newspaper rescuers saved a mother and her child, but the mother’s leg had to be amputated.
Family members paced at the entrance of Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center.
“What happened?” one woman repeatedly cried as she dashed toward her family, who were all wiping tears from their eyes.
Lisa Melenciano, 16, said she was at the hospital to check in on Deven Gonzalez, a volleyball teammate who was in surgery. Deven's mother, who shielded Deven during the collapse, was also in surgery, Melenciano said. Deven's father is missing, Melenciano said.
"I see her as a sister," Melenciano said about her teammate.
Witnesses described alarms blaring and survivors screaming and running from the building. Survivors recounted hearing signs of the collapse and attempting to escape the building early Thursday morning.
Surfside is a few miles north of Miami Beach.
Jeff Pias, 60, was staying with his wife at the Bluegreen Vacations Hotel next door. He said he heard what sounded like a "huge tornado" and saw dust covering the sky. Then, the windows shook and alarms went off. The couple ran downstairs and found dust had inundated the lobby.
Pias described 15 seconds of silence outside before the screams began.
“All of a sudden people started screaming for help," he said. "I could see people on the balconies yelling, 'Help me.'"
One survivor, former Surfside Vice Mayor Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were sleeping when he heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. When the couple opened their door, they found “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” Cohen said. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
Cohen and his wife left for the basement, where they found rising water, before returning upstairs to yell for help. Firefighters arrived at their window with a cherry picker and brought them to safety.
Moshe Candiotti, 67, felt the building shake. When he ran down the stairs, he stopped to help an elderly woman clenching onto a ramp.
Candiotti, who is from Israel and has lived in Miami for 40 years, said the shock took him back to his time serving in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when his job on the southern border between Israel and Egypt was to retrieve bodies.
“The thing is, when you experience trauma, your mind doesn’t respond the same way," Candiotti said. "It comes later."
A world coin collector, Candiotti said he will miss his collectible coins the most.
Rosalia Cordaro and her husband, Francesco, left their condo days ago to return to their Staten Island, New York, home. They learned in an early-morning call their oceanfront dream home had collapsed.
“We are only here because we came up for business,” Rosalia Cordaro told USA TODAY.
“I have been on the phone all day, trying to reach people,” she said. “I hope they are still alive.”
The Cordaros bought the 10th-floor unit about two years ago as a getaway. They’d spend three consecutive months in Miami and would’ve been there this week had it not been for urgent business needs in New York.
“It was a beautiful building, a nice community,” Cordaro said. “It was our home, and we lost it.”
Crowds of law enforcement officers gathered around the mound of rubble, and a rescue team of Orthodox Jews, called Hatzalah, was on the scene in the area, which has a large Jewish and Israeli population. Members of a synagogue arrived with bottled water, cookies, fruit and chips for staff and survivors.
Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, consul general of Israel, was one of the first dignitaries to arrive and speak to affected families.
No families had filed any missing person reports with the consulate, but Israel offered rescue teams to help with recovery efforts, Elbaz-Starinsky said.
The city has also long been an enclave of the Argentine American community.
Silvana Juárez, 49, of Argentina, lives near the condo building and said her daughter heard a loud explosion. As a woman sobbed nearby, Juárez said three of her good friends and a young child were missing.
Wendy Jean Louis, a caregiver of a family who lived in the building, arrived sobbing.
"I can see that’s where the unit was; that’s where their apartment was," she said, staring at the rubble. “I spend more than 10 hours here; they are my family."
Contributing: Ken Alltucker, Teresa Frontado and Christian Ortega, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida building collapse survivors recount escapes, loved ones wait