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At This Hour

4 Dead, 159 People Unaccounted for in Condo Collapse; Justice Department Suing Georgia Over New Voting Restrictions. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 25, 2021 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with the breaking news, the intense and complex search to find survivors from the horrific condo collapse in south Florida. I'm going to show you right now, these are live pictures from the scene as we speak. You could see the red buckets that they have just been watching in the past few minutes, passing them back and forth.

They're clearly digging out sections of debris, a lot of debris and a painstaking fashion at this point in certain sections. A lot of questions of exactly what that means in that particular place right now. We're keeping a very close eye on this.

This morning, officials confirm that at least four people are dead. They also just announced that the number of people unaccounted for has risen to 159.

Now, rescue crews have been working around the clock. We have seen dogs being used for detection, we've seen heavy equipment that has been brought in to start moving around some of the massive concrete slaps that we see kind of throughout this horrific scene.

They are working also from below to try to tunnel in to search for the missing and now you see in these live pictures they are working from above, which I mean bucket by bucket trying to pull out debris.

It is now been about 34 hours since that building just crumbled.

CNN's Rosa Flores and Sanjay Gupta are at the scene and both joining me now.

Rosa, first to you, what is the latest on the search and rescue operation?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, Kate, the death toll increased overnight from one to four. Also the number of people accounted for increased to 120 and the number of people unaccounted for increased to 159. I just heard from Jackson Memorial Hospital, they say that they are still treating two individuals, for privacy reasons they will not let us know what type of injuries they had. But this as we learned some of the challenges that firefighters have been dealing with overnight.

I can tell you over here, last night at about 10:00 when this started pouring. They also saw fires that they put out and then got reignited.

Just today we've seen multiple downpours. Now, of course, that complicates the situation given the fact that all of the water adds more weight. We're learning from officials about the dangerous work that firefighters are doing at this hour. We're hearing that they are working in about 15-minute shifts at the most, depending on the conditions inside some of the tunnels where they're searching. The amount of time that they're able to be inside is very small.

They are carrying about 80 pounds of equipment, including saws. They can't do very much because every single piece of rubble could have catastrophic consequences. That is why their working with engineers making sure that everything is shored up, secured, before these men and women enter those very dangerous areas looking for signs of life.

Now, we are learning more, of course, about the people who are unaccounted for. Right now, that number stands at 159. My colleague Poppy Harlow interviewed a woman named Rachel Spiegel, she told us about her mother Judy Spiegel. The last time that she had communication with her mother was on Wednesday, hours before the collapse.

And now, it is a very moving text for this woman. She said that her mom found a dress, a princess dress for her daughter. Take a listen.


RACHEL SPIEGEL, DAUGHTER OF MISSING SURFSIDE WOMAN: She wanted this dress and my mom found it online and came back in my size, my daughter's size which is a four and my mom bought it and that is the last that I have, at 9:00 something she bought the dress and she was so excited. And the dress is in the mail and I just want my mom to give it to her.

My mom helps me a lot. I'm a working mom and during COVID my mom choose to be if Florida so she could help me with remote school, help me with pickups and drop-offs and dinner and my mom has attended many play dates, dance classes and everything. Everything that you could possibly imagine.


FLORES: Now, Jim and Poppy, families are at a reunification center hoping for good news as firefighters as you could see behind me continuing to sift through the rubble -- Jim and Poppy.

BOLDUAN: Rosa, thank you very much. I'm going to take it now.

Sanjay, I want to bring you in on this. As we've talked about the hours that have ticked by, now 30 plus hours after the collapse, what are you hearing? What are the chances of surviving in the rubble this long? DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't think

anybody is willing to put a time frame on it at this point, Kate. For obviously reasons. I think it is still a search and rescue mission. I have a conversation with the medical examiner about that and that is still the mode in which they're operating.


But as you get further and further out, it depends on a lot of factors.

All types of injuries a person may have had. Are they in one of the voids that we've been hearing about? Do they have access to air? And obviously the pre-existing conditions in terms of being able to tolerate all of this.

It is tough. I mean, there is to question. But at this point, you hear that typically the 24-hour mark is typically when most people who are going to survive are recovered but you also hear stories as you well know, Kate, being in Haiti and other places, I've seen people rescued days after the initial collapse.

So there is still very much working under that sort of -- that mission and the medical examiner sort of clued me in to the fact they are still into search and rescue.

BOLDUAN: And from a medical perspective, when you are 30-plus hours along, not only the collapsed and the injures that you have to be concerned about, Sanjay, but from just a medical standpoint, what do you worry about if there are survivors who are stuck under the rubble?

GUPTA: Well, I mean, for them, obviously it is a question are they -- are the injuries catastrophic to point where they may be rescued and be able to triage --

BOLDUAN: I have to go there.

We're going live to Washington where the attorney general is set to make a big announcement.

MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Condolences for the community in Surfside, Florida. I know how difficult it is for the families who have lost and for those who are waiting to hear. And I express great gratitude for the first responders and for the others who are assisting in the ongoing rescue operation. I know that the federal government is providing assistance to the state and local governments and we stand ready as things develop to provide more assistance if it is required.

The rights of all eligible citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy. They are the rights from which all other rights ultimately flow. Two weeks ago, I spoke about our country's history of expanding the right to vote. I noted that our progress on protecting voting rights, especially for black Americans and people of color, has never been steady. Moments of voting rights expansion have been often met with counter

efforts to curve the franchise. Among other things, I express concern about the rise in state legislative actions that will make it harder for millions of citizens to cast a vote that counts. I explained that the Justice Department is rededicating resources to enforcing federal law and to protecting the franchise for all eligible voters. And I promised that we are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access and where we see violations of federal law, we will act.

In keeping that promise, today, the Department of Justice is suing the state of Georgia. Our complaint alleges that recent changes to Georgia's election laws were enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of black Georgians to vote on the counts of race or color in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Several studies show that Georgia experienced record voter turnout and participation rates in the 2020 election cycle. Approximately two- thirds of eligible voters in the state cast a ballot in the November election, just over the national average. This is cause for celebration.

But then in March of 2021, Georgia's legislature passed SB-202. Many of that law's provisions make it harder for people to vote.

The complaint alleges that the state enacted those restrictions with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. In a few moments, Assistant Attorney General Clark will talk in more detail about this case, the United States versus Georgia.

I want to thank the staff of the Civil Rights Division's Voting Section for their hard work on this matter and for their every day efforts to protect Americans' voting rights.

The critical nature of their work is the reason we are doubling the section's enforcement staff.

This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted and that every voter has access to accurate information.


The Civil Rights Division continues to analyze other state laws that have been passed and we are following the progress of legislative proposals under consideration in additional states, where we believe that the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act.

We will use all existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.

Under the supervision of the associate attorney general, the Civil Rights Division is also taking proactive measures to help states understand federal law and best practices. We are in the process of developing guidance to help ensure that post-election audits comply with federal law, and we are working in guidance with respect to early voting and voting by mail. And because the upcoming redistricting cycle may be the first since 1960 to proceed without the key preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, we'll publish new guidance to make clear the voting protections that apply to all jurisdictions as they redraw their electoral maps.

These include maps used for congressional districts, state legislatures, county commissions, city councils and more. Pursuant to President Biden's executive order, we are also working to ensure access to voter registration for eligible individuals in federal custody and will assist other federal agencies in expanding voter registration opportunities as permitted by law.

Finally, as I noted two weeks ago, we are seeing a dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers. To address this effort to undermine our electoral process, today, the deputy attorney general will issue a directive to all federal prosecutors and the FBI which will highlight the prevalence of these threats, and instruct them to prioritize investigating these threats.

Today, we will also launch a task force including personnel from the Criminal Division, the Civil Rights Division, the National Security Division and the FBI to focus on these threats. We will promptly prosecute any violations of federal law. We are using every method at our disposal at our enforcement efforts but that is not enough. We urge Congress to act to provide the department with important authorities it needs to protect the voting rights of every American.

Eight years ago today, the Supreme Court issued the decision in Shelby County Versus Holder. Prior to that decision, the Justice Department had an invaluable tool it could use to protect voters from discrimination, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Under that section, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction could not be enforced unless a jurisdiction first proved to the Justice Department or to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, that the proposed change did not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group.

Using that tool, the department prevented over 175 proposed election laws across Georgia from being implemented because they failed the statutory test. If Georgia had still been covered by section five, it is likely that SB-202 would never have taken effect. We urge Congress to restore this invaluable tool.

I will now turn the podium over to Kristen Clarke who will tell you more about our filing in the United States versus Georgia.


Two weeks ago, you made clear that the department -- BOLDUAN: All right. We just heard a big announcement from the

attorney general of the United States. The Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia over its recently passed and enacted law restricting -- making it harder to vote in that state. And that is what the Justice Department is alleging in its complaint in this lawsuit.


Let me bring in right now, CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider as well as CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates.

Laura, how significant is this?

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Extremely. You know, I actually worked in the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice and it is extraordinary that they are taking this action. Not because the facts do not lend itself to this. But the fact that they're trying to ensure that what is left of the voting rights act, the idea of protecting people against the infringement of voting rights on the basis of color and other factors is not going to be infringed.

And we heard from Merrick Garland where he promised to essentially say even without section five, he was going to use all of the available tools for the Justice Department to talk about these issues. And here we have section two which essentially said you cannot craft laws with an efforts on any eye towards trying to undermine someone's ability to vote on the basis of race and other factors.

And it's also based on the results test, meaning even if you didn't d not intend to do so, the results test of section two said that if it has that effect on voters of color, it could still be thought of as unconstitutional.

Now he interestingly said that he believed not only had the result, but also it would have the intent there. So the combination of those two things tells you it's a new day in the Department of Justice.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, I was just looking at -- as notes that I took from what said. Many of the laws provisions were enacted with those restrictions with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. Directly to your point, Laura.

Jessica, remind folks about the Georgia law. This is a big debate leading up to it. And we reported on it extensively, but the law that the Justice Department is directly targeting now.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, and remember Georgia was really ground zero of these calls of election fraud. We heard that January 2nd phone call from former president Trump who was still president at the time urging Georgia officials to just find him a few more votes. And so, really, Georgia has been the focus here.

And in March of 2021, just a few months ago, Georgia enacted this very wide-ranging law restricting voting in many senses. I'll run down what it enacted. The renewed voter ID requirements for absentee ballots. It also allowed state officials to cake over control from some local election boards. There was limited use of ballot drop boxes.

And then the last provision, which critics went crazy over, was that it made it a crime for people to offer food and water to voters who were standing in line, something that's really standard especially last election where we saw lines stretching and people waiting for sometimes hours to actually vote.

So, now, the Justice Department really taking their commitment to voting rights with -- which they've stressed over the past many weeks, taking this to the new level and suing the state of Georgia over these laws that were enacted.

And what's interesting here, Kate, is that we're actually in the process of waiting for the Supreme Court to issue a decision about the scope of section two. Because as you and Laura have been talking about and as the attorney general mentioned, section five was usually the reason that many of the states weren't allowed to pass these expansive voting laws or voting laws that restricted voting.

But now that that was taken away by Shelby versus Holder in 2013, the people challenging these laws have looked to section two, and we're awaiting in the next few days that the Supreme Court will be issuing a decision as to how broad section two can be for people challenging those laws. This will directly play into how the Justice Department continues in its lawsuit.

Remember several voting rights groups, civil rights groups have already sued over these laws but this is ratcheted up no the next level by the Justice Department suing here, guys.

BOLDUAN: Laura, attorney general said this is the first of many steps that we are taking. I'm wondering why -- what you hear in that, why Georgia, why do you think Georgia first? There are at least 14 states in the country that have passed more restrictive voting laws. We've reported on this a lot.

Why do you think Georgia first and what do you think is coming?

COATES: Perhaps because it is been so prominently talked about in the news. It is also been one of the things that there is a legislature and obviously the secretary of state in Georgia was also talking about how there was not fraud. The actual words that were being used could actually form the basis for the support for the lawsuit against Georgia, to suggest that there was no real means or real need to actually enact those laws.

Remember one of the things that justice -- that Merrick Garland said, not Justice Garland, Attorney General Merrick Garland, excuse me, it should have been cause for celebration with the increase in voter participation. But instead essentially that was flipped on its head and used as some sort of impetuous to restrict and restrain.

[11:20:02] And he said quite accurately I think, but if Section 5 had never been gutted, if that formula still existed, to require states that were covered, and jurisdictions covered, to get the preauthorization of the Justice Department before they make any voting related changes, these laws would never have been enacted.

I suspect what he was mentioning, Kate, was the notion that Georgia may be the first of many. So for every state where you heard a politician or those who were in the position to actually oversee the elections or the changes who simply were contrary which is saying there was no need to have any laws or getting ahead of the curve, I think in Florida, they said that will be used against them trying to show some support for why they felt the need to enact them in the long run.

But, again, Jessica is correct about the notion about the parameters of Section Two. The real question is going to be even if there was no intent, he use the word "purpose" if there was an effect on it could that still be held unconstitutional. Here, we have yet to have a new election to test whether there has been the effect but that is why the purpose comment is so important here and it will like be the first of many.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, and this is officially a beginning of a new front in this huge fight over voting rights. You're right to vote in this country. This is the beginning of a new very significant front in that battle what we just heard announced today by the attorney general.

Laura, thank you very much. Jessica, thank you so much for your reporting. Appreciate it.

We'll have much more on that. We'll continue to follow that press conference and we'll get back to our breaking news coverage of the urgent and intense search right now for any survivors in the rubble in south Florida.

We're going to talk to a Miami man whose mother and grandmother are missing this morning. That's next.



BOLDUAN: Let's return to our breaking news coverage out of south Florida right now, an unthinkable tragedy for the families of at least four people this morning. And this is also just an agonizing unmanageable time for the family of all of those who are still unaccounted for following that condominium collapse. Right now, the number stands at 159 people unaccounted for.

And right now, there is nothing that these family members can do but wait and hope and pray and watch these pictures that you and I are watching together.

Joining me right now is Pablo Rodriguez, his mother lives in the building. His grandmother was staying with her, and they are both still missing this morning.

Pablo, I know we spoke on the break, but I'm just so sorry that I'm speaking to you at a time like this. It's impossible to wrap your mind around. How are you doing?

PABLO RODRIGUEZ, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER ARE MISSING IN CONDO COLLAPSE: It's devastating, Kate. It's comes in waves but it is completely devastating. It overtakes you. Every time I close my eyes, all I could see is the video of the tower falling.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. That is -- that is something I wish you had not had to see. Because that's -- it's horrific. I don't know new words to describe that.

RODRIGUEZ: There is no words. As bad as it was, it was at least a little cathartic because at the beginning, we weren't sure if her unit was affected or not because of the angle of the photos. But when you see the footage, she was in that first tower that went down. So it became clear to us what happened.

BOLDUAN: Had there been any updates? I'm not sure what the updates could be. But what have you heard?

RODRIGUEZ: We have heard -- officially we have heard nothing other than what is on the news. I did get a call from a reporter that let me know that they're taking DNA swaps at the community center, so if anybody has any family members that were involved to go down there.

So when we're finished up here, that is where I'm going, to provide a DNA sample but officially I have not heard anything.

BOLDUAN: That is -- even that is hard to process I'm sure, Pablo. What questions are going through your mind this morning?

RODRIGUEZ: To be honest, the biggest question is just how this happened. It is a building. It is not supposed to fall down. It is in the middle of reconstruction, it is in the middle of inspections. They had gone to the point where it collapsed, somebody had to have seen something, somebody had to know something.

Buildings don't just fall down like this. Especially when they're being in inspected and rebuilt. So that is the hardest thing to process, how this happened without anybody, you know, knowing something or missing something.

BOLDUAN: You've talked about how your mom had told you that she had been woken up in her sleep the night before because some kind of creaking sounds.


BOLDUAN: How concerned was she about that?

RODRIGUEZ: She wasn't very concerned. She heard some creaking and it woke her up. And then she just didn't go back to sleep and she just kind of mentioned it. It wasn't really a concern of I'm worried the building is going to fall down because otherwise she would have left.

You know, it's not a normal sound in a building, but she didn't really think anything of it. I didn't think anything of it. Now in hindsight, you always start to wonder whether you should have paid more attention to it.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. It really, I have to say it broke my heart when I heard that you were saying that your mom and your grandmother were set to be taking your son out to lunch yesterday afternoon.