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At This Hour

9 Killed, 152 Missing in Florida Condo Collapse; Interview with Mayor Charles Burkett of Surfside, Florida. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 28, 2021 - 11:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: (AUDIO GAP) Florida, welcome our viewers here in from the United States and around the world. We are standing by to get an update from authorities, from officials here on search and rescue efforts that are still underway at the site of this deadly condo collapse.

We are now in day five, day five of the desperate search for survivors. At this hour, nine people are confirmed dead, 152 others are still unaccounted for. This morning, we're learning new details about the building structural integrity from a 2018 engineers' report that warned of what was described as major structural damage that required immediate repair.

Despite that, CNN has learned that residents were assured that the tower was in, quote, very good shape.

Let's begin our special coverage this hour. CNN's Rosa Flores, she's got the latest on the search efforts.

Rosa, you're not very far away from where all of this is unfolding. Update our viewers.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the fire chief, they are using every single tool in their tool box very aggressively. Canines, cameras, sonar, we've seen drones over the debris site. They're using a grid pattern to search and rescue, of course, looking for signs of life. The weather today has been a little bit better. It was better yesterday which helped the search efforts.

Now, all of this as we're learning more from a 2018, a structural survey that exposed a lot of the deficiencies in this building. It said, quote, that there were structural -- major structural damage, that there was exposed and deteriorating rebar, that there was cracked concrete to columns and also that exposed rebar in the garage area and also issues with the pool deck.

One of the main concerns, according to this report, was to the waterproofing of that area which according to the report was beyond its useful life. Now, I want to quote from the report to give you a better idea. This is coat quoting from the report, quote, the waterproofing below the pool deck and entrance drive, as well all of the planter waterproofing is beyond its useful life and therefore must be completely removed and replaced. The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.

And here's the key in this final sentence: failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially. This report is from 2018.

CNN spoke to an engineer who looked at this garage last year, during an inspection and here's what he saw. Take a listen.


JASON BORDEN, STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: I saw cracks in the stucco facade. I saw deterioration of the concrete balconies. I saw cracks and deterioration of the garage and plaza level, but those are all things that we're accustomed to seeing. There could have been construction errors or design errors or design defects. There was maintenance or repairs that needed to be performed. You know, all of those things together likely contributed to what happened here.


FLORES: Of course this raises a lot of questions about who knew what and when, Wolf. You've been here for a few days and we've been trying to ask some of those questions to get to the bottom of this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Rosa, we'll get back to you. Thank you very much.

Once again we're standing by for the news briefing this hour. We'll get the latest information and potentially new numbers on what is going on over here. Meanwhile, the numbers remain the same, 152 people are missing -- 152 people are missing at this hour. Their families obviously desperate for answers on their loved ones. Some of them actually got to visit the site of the collapsed tower for the first time.

CNN's Nick Valencia is covering that part of the story for us.

Nick, so what are you hearing directly from family members this morning. I know you've been speaking to several of them?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For some that visit yesterday was closure, for others a deeper understanding exactly of what these first responders are dealing with and the difficulty at hand here. I just spoke to the mayor who left a briefing with those family and friends of the still unaccounted nor and in one word he described it as just rough.


He is expected to give us a briefing in just a short time and although he has hope that there may still be survivors among the unaccounted, some of the family and friends I've spoken to say they're starting to lose it. I spoke to Pablo Rodriguez by phone. He was unable emotionally to join us on camera but he did want to share this message.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER MISSING IN SURFSIDE COLLAPSE: As the days tick on, it is harder to hold on to any little hope that we do have that we'll be able to see them again alive. It is been especially difficult this weekend because they were always coming over on the weekend, we would always be together. So my son is still asking when we could call them, when are they coming over. When are we going to see them again and we can't tell them yet that he's not going to be able to see them again.


VALENCIA: There are hundreds of family and friends still waiting for word on loved ones. All of them are processing it a little differently and we're seeing the combination of that grief. Some have been angry and taking frustrations out on the local officials, being very contentious with them during these briefings.

So, this range of emotions not just felt by family and friends but by the first responders who are coming up empty handed as we enter day five. They feel almost demoralized. They tell me not being able to give satisfactory answers to the family, they are doing, they assure us, as much as they can to help the families out. They want word just as much as the family members do of any sign of life here. But as we tick into day five, that sign of life is dimming with every passing moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is.

All right. Nick Valencia, thank you very much. Let's discuss all these late breaking developments. Charles Burkett is the mayor of Surfside. He's joining us right now.

Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

I know you've been briefed this morning. We've standing by for another briefing from the authorities.

First of all, could you update our viewers on the latest information involving the search and the all important search and rescue operations?

MAYOR CHARLES BURKETT, SURFSIDE, FLORIDA: I can. First thing I do every morning is I go over, and I talk to the guys doing the work. We got -- we've got at least 240 men and women on the pile right now, hand picking that stuff out. We've got cranes, we've got gigantic cranes lifting off huge slabs.

The governor has provided all this infrastructure, the senators have worked to do -- we don't have, as I said, we don't have a resource problem, we have a luck problem. We just have to get lucky and we start finding people and pulling them out.

BLITZER: Do you still have hope? BURKETT: Oh, I absolutely have hope and I'm expecting some miracles.

BLITZER: We're hoping for miracles.

BURKETT: That's right.

BLITZER: With each day, it gets increasingly --

BURKETT: It does. Well, I think we're at the beginning. I think -- you know, there was a BBC article that I was sent that outlined survival rates in building collapses. And it outlined that people have survived up to 17 days and maybe more.

So, given that it is 17 days survive ability, and it talked about the rain going into the -- they've got water and plenty of rain unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it. But, you know, I'm not even going there. I'll tell you where I'm going. I have two priorities. One is to pull everybody out of that pile that I can. And two is to support the families.

BLITZER: You've been meeting with the families and as you know --

BURKETT: Every day.

BLITZER: And some of them had a chance to visit the site but many of them are increasingly frustrated and they're upset, and they expressed that to you, don't they?

BURKETT: They did. This is the first time I met with them and I asked what they needed, and they said they needed fewer politicians coming to talk to them. They wanted to hear from the rescue teams. And so, to her credit, the mayor of Dade County, acted on that request and immediately brought over the fire chief who has committed to updating them twice a day now.

BLITZER: You said what happened here not far away from where we are is what happens in third world countries and should never happen here in the United States. And I remember a time when a major building like this simply collapsed maybe for structural damage.

What do you make of the reports that three years ago, there were deep concerns expressed about the structural viability of this building but then the folks were reassured it was very in good shape.

BURKETT: That's a giant problem.

BLITZER: So what are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?

BURKETT: Well, I tell you. Well, let's -- I tell you what I am doing about it. I've instructed our staff to pull out every shred of paper that exists related to that building, number one.

And we'll get to the sister building in a second. But --

BLITZER: Because it is a very similar building, a very similar building.

BURKETT: Not just similar.

BLITZER: Almost built at the same time by the same people.

BURKETT: By the same contractor, right.

So, but to answer your first question, we are -- we've actually gone out to our archives, the physical boxes, pulled those boxes out and the staff is now handed the boxes off to all be scanned.

So every bit of information that we have, we're going to put on our website so that you all could have a look at it too. And you'll get the information at the same time I do.

BLITZER: It must be so frustrating, I mean when I read those reports about the conclusion three years ago and then the suggestion to the members, the people who live in the condominium, everything was just fine.


It must be frustrating knowing what we know now.

BURKETT: Well, I don't know in a frustrating adequately addresses the emotion.

BLITZER: You're obviously angry about all of that, the way -- the way it unfolded.

So, where do we go from here in terms of how long it's going to take? I know the priority number one is saving people's lives.

BURKETT: That's it.

BLITZER: But priority number two is finding out what happened and making sure that the sister building Champlain Towers North, which is still in business right now, that there is no real danger there. You've recommended folks maybe think about leaving there?

BURKETT: Right. Well, I -- you know, I recommended that to Senator Scott and Mayor Cava and the consensus was to give them the choice. You know, we're not pushing the panic button right now. But there is a serious question there. And you know, when someone asked you if their building is safe and you can't answer that question, that's a problem.

BLITZER: So if you live there, you wouldn't sleep there overnight.

BURKETT: I wouldn't sleep there.

BLITZER: You would get out. But what about all the other buildings in Surfside.

BURKETT: Well --

BLITZER: There are a lot of condominium buildings not only here but in Bell Harbor and North Miami and all over the place.

BURKETT: I think it might be a little much right now to make that jump. I think there's probable cause to believe we could have a problem at the sister building because it's the same design, same developer, and all of the fingerprints are there.

But I don't know that that issue exists, except for a third building which is also called Champlain and I understand that one was built sometime later. It has a different design and -- but we'll, of course, be looking at that too.

BLITZER: Because the fear was, if you read the latest reports, that the building collapse because of the structural damage was at the bottom of the building.

BURKETT: Uh-huh.

BLITZER: There were maybe some issues involving the ground and then the parking garage and the pillars were not necessarily all that stable. You've seen those reports?

BURKETT: Well, not only have I seen those reports but I've talked to an engineer that we brought on. I called my staff to congratulate them on the decision to bring this particular engineer on because he's the guy that oversaw the investigation at the Pentagon after the planes struck. He's the guy that oversaw the investigation after the FIU Bridge fell.

So, he is imminently qualified to advise us and we have him on board. And I met with him yesterday and had a detailed conversation about all of the possible things that could have gone wrong. But having said that, that's all speculation. We need to get in there and get the actual answers.

BLITZER: You and I have spoken several times over the past few days. Very briefly, because we've got to run, tell us about some of the -- at least one or two of the personal stories, you've spoken to people who lost loved ones in that building, including some who were involved in a rescue operation right now.

BURKETT: I'll tell you what hit me the hardest. Last night when I did my last night pass at the building, there was a little girl. She's about 12 years old and sitting by herself.

And I know this little girl because I had met her and she had told me that either her mother or father was in that building and that either her mother or father lives in another building a couple of streets down.

So she had a mom here and a dad there. And one of them is gone now. And she was sitting there by herself with her cell phone reading prayers, all by herself. And that broke my heart.


BURKETT: And I'm going to find that girl today. And I'm going to tell her that she just needs to come to me for anything she needs because that's the face of this problem, of this disaster right here, that little girl.

BLITZER: Little girl searching for a mom --

BURKETT: Or a dad.

BLITZER: Or a dad.

BURKETT: Twelve years old --

BLITZER: There are so many other kids living here.


BURKETT: -- by herself lost, completely lost, sitting there on the deck looking at the pile of rubble, imagining her parents, one of her parents in there. It's not -- that should never happen.

BLITZER: Because I think of 152 missing people, right now. Each one has a son or a daughter or a mom or a dad or grandparents.

BURKETT: You have thousands, thousands that must be connected.


BURKETT: It just goes out in waves.

And you know, again, there is so much here to unpack it is unbelievable but I want to stay focused on my two major objectives which is to get everybody out there and support the family. That's it.

The rest will come naturally. But we're going to cooperate. We're going to make -- we're going to be transparent and Surfside is going to do its part and we're going to find out what happened.

BLITZER: I know. We're standing by for the briefing. Do you suspect we're going to get some new numbers?

BURKETT: We'll see at the briefing.


David Burkett, thank you so much for all you're doing.

BURKETT: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.


BLITZER: We'll obviously stay in close touch.

BURKETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: The mayor of Surfside here. We're going to bring you the news briefing. That's coming up this

hour. As soon as it begins, we'll have live coverage.

Also, there is more news we're following.


Up next, 92 going on 62. I'll speak with a family whose beloved grandmother, grandmother is among the missing.


BLITZER: Families are desperately awaiting the news on their loved ones as rescue teams enter day five of searching for survivors in the rubble of the condo building collapse. Nine people are confirmed dead, 152 people remain unaccounted for -- 152 people remain unaccounted for.

One of those missing is 92-year-old Hilda Noriega who lived on the sixth floor of the tower.


Her grandson Michael is with me right now.

Michael, thank you so much for joining us. Our hearts go out to you and your loving family. I know your family is here with you as well.

First of all, tell us a little bit about your grandma.

MICHAEL NORIEGA, GRANDMOTHER MISSING IN CONDO BUILDING COLLAPSE: She lived life or lives life with her whole heart. I mean, she's the most loving person we know. She's a woman full of faith. She lived for her family -- one of the most popular people that I know by far. And she just is so full of life and vibrant. Everybody loved her.

BLITZER: Was she living by herself?

NORIEGA: Yes. She's fiercely independent.

BLITZER: Even at the age of 92?


BLITZER: And she was sharp and she talked to you guys and loved her kids and her grandkids and all of that. So how did you hear about it? What happened?

NORIEGA: So my father got a call very early in the morning on -- I'm assuming before 2:00 a.m. and I got the call at 2:00 a.m. and we just heard that a part of the building had collapsed, that there was like this loud explosion sound. And so, we just rushed down here, really not knowing what to expect.

And just the scene that is back here. I mean, when I arrived here, I just don't believe it. I just -- I felt my knees, in awe, I didn't know what to do. We were just in shock. We're still a little bit in shock.

BLITZER: Your grandma had lived in this building for how long?

NORIEGA: For 20 years.

BLITZER: For 20 years, she had been in this, and you been there many times, parents were there? I know that you and your dad then went searching and walking around the rubble. At one point, you brought something that I guess miraculously all of a sudden you found?

NORIEGA: Yeah. Well they wouldn't let us near the rubble. But when we arrived on the scene on the street, there was debris everywhere. And my father within an hour of being here stepped on something and looked down and it happened to be this card right here with my grandmother's name on here, Hilda.

BLITZER: With some hearts.

NORIEGA: Yeah, with some hearts. She was very much so loved. And it was actually this birthday card right here that she had gotten just two weeks prior.

BLITZER: Sending special birthday wishes.

NORIEGA: Yes. And so a bunch of her friends had signed it and just all kinds of love and happy birthday. This was just very, very special, that my father of all people had found this.

BLITZER: And a lot of this, her friends were wishing her happy birthday in Spanish.


BLITZER: I don't know how good your Spanish is but to read a line or so to give our viewers a sense.

NORIEGA: You're asking the wrong person. I see a lot of feliz cumpleanos, a lot of happy birthday in Spanish and the best I got right now.

BLITZER: And I know you've got some pictures as well.


BLITZER: You discovered those pictures as well?


BLITZER: You just found them on the street?

NORIEGA: Yeah. They were all scattered in the street.

BLITZER: Show our viewers those pictures.

NORIEGA: This one was most shocking to us. So this is my grandmother and that is my grandfather and that is my father right there in the middle and so we remember this picture very vividly in her home. And we found this face down in the street. I mean, just miraculous.

BLITZER: Can you believe that out of all of the places, you know, you find a picture like that, and it must have made you and your dad obviously get so emotional.

NORIEGA: Yeah. You know what, it made us believe that there is purpose in this pain. You know, my grandmother was a believer. She lived for her faith. And in moments like you have to question what the foundations of your life are on.

And what it made us realize is that God is with us in the pain. It felt like something that he had given us as a gift to say look whether your grandmother is underneath that rubble, my presence is with her and she's okay. And if she's not alive under that rubble, that she's in heaven with Jesus and that she's okay. And so that was the sense of comfort that we got from finding this.

BLITZER: And then you another picture here too.


BLITZER: And you found this one also?


BLITZER: Together with the birthday card?


BLITZER: And tell us about this picture.

NORIEGA: So, this one is my grandparents on vacation. So I'm not sure where it is because I wasn't there. But, man, to find both of these, again nothing short of a miracle.

BLITZER: And as I say, you saw the discovery of these two pictures and this birthday card as a gift from God?


BLITZER: And your dad did as well?

NORIEGA: Oh, yeah. All of us.

BLITZER: It was not just an accident, but this was a deliberate sort of sign that God was giving you that whatever --


BLITZER: I know that we all hope and pray that your grandma is going to be found and she's going to be found alive. Do you still have hope?

NORIEGA: Absolutely. This isn't over. This is still very far from over.

And we're just -- the number one thing that we're focusing on right now is prayer and moments like this we just realize how much we're truly not in control and so we're just making our first response not our last resort in this case.


And we're just trusting that God has the situation. We're very hopeful.

BLITZER: And are you satisfied with the search and rescue operations that are underway, because some family members, they say they're frustrated, they're angry, they want news, they want it right away, which is understandable.

NORIEGA: Yeah. I mean, this is a very frustrating process for everybody that's involved. But I've seen firsthand what is happening there and I really think that they could not be doing a better job. I've seen our first responders just working day and night.

The first day that I was here, I was here for more than 24 hours, and just watching them work on the scene, risking their lives was absolutely amazing. And then on the local level, our mayor has shown tremendous support. Our senators have shown tremendous support. You know, our Governor Ron DeSantis walking by has shown tremendous support.

BLITZER: We just saw him walking by here.


BLITZER: He's going to be at the news briefing beginning momentarily. They're all getting involved and they all want to do whatever they could and most important priority is finding people alive and I know you're still praying for a miracle, your family is still praying for a miracle.

Twenty years your grandma lived in this building, who has lived in this building, tell us a little bit about your visits there? Did you suspect maybe there was a structural problem, that it wasn't safe?

NORIEGA: I didn't. If we did, I mean, we wouldn't have had her there at all. So it's very sad that this happened. None of us really expected this.

BLITZER: Did you go yesterday when they allowed family members to visit the site of the search and rescue operation. Were among those who went yesterday?

NORIEGA: No. Not yesterday.

BLITZER: No members of your family?


BLITZER: Do you want to see that? Because some family members, they don't want to go see it and some of them will feel a sense of at least a little bit comfort in seeing it. NORIEGA: Yeah. Well, we are one of the first on the scene when this


BLITZER: So you actually saw it.

NORIEGA: Correct.

BLITZER: You got up close?


BLITZER: So what's your message to folks who are watching us right now? What do you want them to know?

NORIEGA: My message is that our family, we want to stand in the gap for everybody that is hurting right now. We want everybody to hold on to hope. We want to encourage everybody to pray because again this is not far from over.

We just believe as a family that miracles are not something that happened in the past but they are something that still happen today. And so we just ask that everybody continue to pray for the victims. I mean, I've had so many people get involved in any way that they can, reaching out from everywhere. And so, there are so many organizations jumping in.

So on a practical level, if somebody wants to have a hands-on effort, I know my church, Blue Church, has been so active in this entire process. I know they could reach out this them and many other organizations. So it's been an incredible effort from everybody.

BLITZER: Give our love to your family. Let's pray and hope for the best. And I tend to agree with you. And I tend to agree with you, it is not a coincidence that you walked around and you spotted this birthday card and you spotted these pictures. There was something going on.

NORIEGA: Yeah, agree.

BLITZER: Michael Noriega, thank you so much. Good luck and we're praying together with you.

NORIEGA: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And to our viewers, we're going to bring you obviously the news briefing minutes from here in Surfside. It's going to be taking place minutes from now, not very far from where I am. And remember, let's keep Hilda Noriega and the families of all of the victims of this tragedy in our thoughts. There she is.

We'll be right back.