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Memorial Grows Outside Site of South Florida Tower Collapse

There are still 150 people unaccounted for after the collapse of the 12-story condominium last week. No survivors have been pulled from the debris field since the morning the building fell.

SURFSIDE, Fla. (CN) — At a memorial next to the site of the Surfside condominium collapse, visitors and family members of a missing resident carefully lifted victims' photos that had been displaced in a storm Monday night.

Toys and notes of solace lined the memorial as blankets of rain came down. A block away, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's team climbed up and down a 40-foot-high pile of concrete rubble at the Champlain Towers South complex throughout the evening.

One note to the rescue workers reads: "Thank you for looking for my grandma. Thank you for sacrificing yourself to make my family feel safe."

Children as young as a year old are among the 150 people still unaccounted for in the wake of the building's collapse last Thursday. Entire families are missing; they are seen smiling ear-to-ear in photos placed at the memorial. 

When the storm cleared, relatives of a victim visited the site and broke down upon seeing the tribute. They embraced each other in tears before departing. 

"We have people waiting and waiting and waiting for news. That is excruciating," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

No survivors have been pulled from the debris field since the morning of the collapse, when two people, including a teenage boy, were rescued from the rubble. The number of confirmed dead stands at 11 as of Tuesday morning.

The storm hampered but did not stop the search effort. According to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, more than 300 workers are assigned to rotating shifts at the site. 

"There's definitely a concern with the rain and now the debris and possibly sliding. So ... it's an extremely dangerous situation," Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said Monday night.

Search and rescue teams look for survivors at the Champlain Towers South residential condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (Al Diaz /Miami Herald via AP)

Among the victims honored at the memorial were Luis Fernando Barth, his wife Catalina Gomez and teenage daughter Valeria. The family from Colombia had been visiting the Miami area on vacation and was staying in a friend's apartment in Champlain Towers South.

Luis was a director of a Colombian nonprofit organization that does environmental consulting. According to a report from South Florida public radio station WLRN, the family was scheduled to leave the day of the collapse.

Luis' brother Sergio Barth told WLRN that Luis was a father figure to him and had taken care of him after their dad passed away.

Nestled between the flowers was a message to Anaely Guara, Marcus Guara and their children Emma and Lucia. Marcus is one of the victims confirmed to have been killed. The rest of the family remains missing in the debris field.

"Our joys will be greater, our love will be deeper, our life will be fuller because we shared your moment," the tribute reads.

Vishal and Bhavna Patel and their 1-year-old daughter Aishani were honored at the memorial as well. Sky News reported that Vishal's cousin Robin and other family traveled across the country to Miami after hearing about the collapse.

"Aishani had just started to grow her first set of bottom teeth. Her preference for teething was actually the stick from a xylophone toy," Robin told Sky News.

Visitors dropped off toys at the memorial for the Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Fla., on Monday, June 28, 2021. Several children, including a 1-year-old girl, are still missing. (Courthouse News photo/Izzy Kapnick)

Matthew Luis Killen, a 37-year-old union organizer, said he's been visiting the site daily to leave flowers and console visitors to the memorial. 

"I live in a high-rise nearby. You feel anxiety. You feel helpless. The best cure for my anxiety is a little bit of action, even if it's just bringing flowers," he said. "I just want to help any way I can."

Similar to Champlain Towers South, Killen's building was recently undergoing construction to address damage brought about by ex​posure to the harsh coastal environment around Miami. He believes local regulations need to be overhauled so that the building recertification process is done every 20 years, instead of the current framework where buildings are recertified once they are 40 years old.

Champlain Towers South was built in 1981 and was due for its 40-year recertification this year. Roofing work was underway as part of a planned refurbishment project. A 2018 engineering report had found  "major structural damage" in a concrete slab near the pool deck. The report warned that if failed waterproofing in the area was not repaired, "the extent of the concrete deterioration" would "expand exponentially.”

As the sun began to set Monday, some visitors to the site recited prayers and sang religious chants.

Brenda Leguisamo and her sister-in-law Mara Garcia were praying while search dogs were being escorted back from the wreckage a few hundred yards away.

Leguisamo, whose family used to live near the Champlain tower, said that visiting Surfside brought back the agony of dealing with the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. She worked in a building across from the World Trade Center and witnessed the turmoil. Seeing the fleet of first responders and volunteers praying in Surfside stirred up her memories of 9/11, she said.

"We remain with faith and hope for all who are affected by the tragedy in Surfside," Leguisamo said.

Mayor Levine Cava said Monday night that the county is reviewing Miami-Dade buildings that are undergoing or have recently undergone their 40-year certification process. She urged officials from Surfside and neighboring cities to complete a similar review program for buildings whose recertification process is overseen on the municipal level, rather than by the county.

The investigation into the collapse is in its earliest stage and has not yet determined whether the damage cited in the 2018 report was the primary cause. Structural engineers onsite have not released an assessment of why the tower suddenly crumbled to the ground.

Fire Chief Cominsky said the rescue team is hopeful and remains determined to find any possible survivors.

"This is what we do. We push hard. And we're looking for a positive outcome," he said.

Photos of victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse fill a memorial that was set up near the rescue site in Surfside, Fla., on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Izzy Kapnick)

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