Crews Searched Collapsed Fla. Condo for Missing Pets Before Demolition: 'No Stone Unturned'
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said they've "took every action that we possibly could" to rescue pets while also prioritizing the safety of their search teams
Officials have made extensive efforts to find missing pets in the Surfside condo collapse prior to its demolition on Sunday, according to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
During an interview with The Miami Herald on Monday, Levine Cava said first responders did all they could to find animals who were left behind in the Champlain Towers South Condo before Sunday night's demolition.
The Florida condo, which collapsed on June 24, was demolished in a controlled explosion at 10:30 p.m. ET following concerns about the structure falling as Tropical Storm Elsa approached. Since then, 11 bodies have been found in the rubble, bringing the death toll to 36.
"They were, at great risk to themselves, searching inside those units that had been indicated that might have pets and searching very thoroughly," Levine Cava told the Herald. "Doorways were opened, other means for the pets to escape the building if they were able."
"We deployed drones with thermal imaging on numerous trips over the rubble pile and standing in the tower, in areas unsafe for search and rescue teams to enter," she added.
Levine Cava's statement seemingly came in response to her press conference on Saturday, in which she said search teams would not go into specific apartment units to search for missing pets before the demolition, according to the Herald.
At the time, the mayor reasoned her decision by explaining, "It is not safe for anyone to go beyond the first floor," the outlet reported.
Levine Cava also said during a press conference that day that search and rescue teams performed three separate searches and found no animals, according to The New York Post.
"I was informed this morning that they did a sweep with cameras and found no animals at this time," she explained, per the Post.
"We took every action that we possibly could to search for any pets, any animals in the building prior to the demolition," she continued. "In the days since the collapse, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue team conducted multiple, full sweeps of the building in person, including searching in closets and under beds and other hiding places. In the areas of the building that were not accessible to the teams, they used ladders on high-lift cranes and they placed live animal traps on the balconies at great personal risk to our first responders."
In response, surviving pet owners expressed concerns, arguing that knocking down the standing portion of the building without checking specific units would kill any animals that are still alive and hiding.
Some of those missing pets included a cat named Mia, who belonged to surviving resident Susana Alvarez, a dog named Edgar, belonging to surviving resident Angela Gonzalez, and a guinea pig owned by missing resident Nicole Langsfeld, according to the Post.
Following Levine Cava's announcement, a petition on Change.org was launched Saturday, calling for demolition plans to be halted until all missing pets were reunited with the owners. Over 18,000 people signed the petition before it was closed.
An animal rescue volunteer, identified as Paula Phillips, also attempted to pause the demolition on Sunday with an emergency motion that would allow her to enter the building and rescue the pets, but a Miami-Dade judge denied the motion, the Post reported.
Arthur Holmes Jr., the assistant county fire chief for operations, confirmed pet search efforts were conducted hours before the building was knocked down, according to the outlet.
He said a firefighter "went from the second floor to the eighth floor, searching multiple units" and swept through the balconies of remaining structures to check for any pets, per the Herald.
At this time, it is unclear how many pets were living in the Champlain Towers South Condo prior to the collapse and if any owners have since been reunited with their animals.
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Speaking to the Herald, Levine Cava — a cat owner herself — reassured residents that they would not give up on the missing pets, but noted that the safety of the first responders, as they recover human bodies, would remain their top priority.
"I have emphasized to Fire and Rescue from the beginning the importance of leaving no stone unturned when it comes to finding these animals," she said. "But I do not substitute my own judgment for theirs about what is safe. I'm bringing to their attention I am hearing there are pets, and if it is safe, please go again."
As of Tuesday evening, the official death toll had risen to 36 people. Four bodies were found earlier in the day and an additional four were recovered later on, Levine Cava confirmed during a press conference.
There are 191 people now accounted for and 109 people still potentially unaccounted for, Levine Cava said.
As officials continue to search through the rubble, they've also been dealing with the impacts of Tropical Storm Elsa. Levine Cava confirmed they are closely monitoring the situation to "assure the safety" of search and rescue teams and had to briefly pause on Tuesday afternoon due to lightning and high winds.