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At This Hour

U.S. Carries Out Airstrikes along Iraqi-Syrian Border; North Koreans Worry over Kimg Jong-un's Weight Loss; 10 Confirmed Dead in Florida Building Collapse, 151 Still Missing. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired June 28, 2021 - 11:30   ET




FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We'll get back to Wolf Blitzer in Florida and the latest on the condo building collapse in a moment.

But we do other stories that we're monitoring as well. Developing overnight, the United States carried out airstrikes against Iran- backed militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border. CNN's Barbara Starr is live for us at the Pentagon with the latest. Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good day, Fredricka. These were U.S. F-15s and F-16 fighter jets, overnight, striking two sites, on the Syrian side of the border, one inside of Iraq. These are sites that the U.S. says were being used by Iranian-backed militias. And the big concern about these militias is they have been launching drone strikes against U.S. forces inside of Iraq and a lot of concern about how to detect these drones and how to keep U.S. troops safe.

So, the U.S. calling this strike last night a precision defensive, a deterrent, that was the military goal here, to deter these militias from carrying out these strikes. These Iranian-backed militias have been a thorn in the side of the U.S. for sometime inside of Iraq and one of the peculiarities is they operate quite freely by all accounts and the Iraqi government does not have a lot of control over them.

So the U.S. felt, as it watched some of these drone strikes by them in recent weeks, that it was time to push back, send a message both to the militias and also to Iran that the Biden administration will take action.



WHITFIELD: All right. Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

All right, also developing today, North Koreans are reportedly heartbroken over the emaciated appearance of their leader, Kim Jong- un. State media is acknowledging weight loss for the first time as speculation grows over the North Korean dictator's health. CNN's Paula Hancock is joining us from Seoul now. Paula?

PAULA HANCOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, this is a fairly rare acknowledgment talking about the health of the North Korean leader. Talking about it could usually get you in a lot of trouble in North Korea. So what we have heard is on state-run media, it was a program about propaganda songs about the leader. And there was one particular man on the street who was speaking to the camera saying that many people were heartbroken when they saw that the leader had become much thinner, saying that it was -- it brought people to tears.

Now, we don't know who this individual was but we do know that state- run media is highly choreographed, highly edited and they know that they wanted to give a message.

WHITFIELD: All right. Paula Hancock, thank you so much.

All right, back to South Florida and Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Fred. This news conference is about to begin. I just saw the governor, saw the mayor, they are walking over right now. They should be at the microphones getting ready to begin this briefing.

I anticipate we're going to get some new information now at these briefings. And you see that the organizers just getting the microphones ready. But to the right, you see the mayor, Daniella Levine Cava. You see Congresswoman Debbie Wassermann Schultz over there. You the governor, DeSantis.

I suspect the governor probably will open up with a statement and then the others will speak. There will be questions from reporters and there are a lot of reporters who have gathered here in Surfside for these briefings. We want as much information but so much more importantly the families, the families are all watching. They want this information as well. And so we anticipate they will be getting some more information.

And, interestingly and importantly, all of these authorities have met with the family members. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to start the press conference shortly. Remember, please hold your questions to the end and we'll be addressing everyone.

I'm calling up to the podium Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Please?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): Thank you so much. I'm Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I represent Florida's 23rd congressional district, which includes Surfside. And this morning, I had an opportunity not only -- down and talk with national experts from NIST, the similar agency that reviews and comes in to decide whether a full investigation will be necessary for structural damage, building collapses. They were investigators in 9/11, they were investigators in a number of structural incidents around the country and are the best of the best when it comes to making sure that they do a complete and thorough overview.

They're in a preliminary investigation right now to determine whether or not they open up a full investigation. I'm not an expert but I would expect that it's natural that they would decide to do that. And their role is to very forensically review as the process of going through the rubble, even during the search and rescue process to help make sure that everything is preserved, which they're working on the task force on debris to do that to make sure that even with the Army Corp of Engineers, that is embedded in their team, to take a look at some of the issues that have arisen anecdotally but issues like the questions around the structural damage to the pool, that area that has been mentioned and other different points of weakness.

They will look through that preliminary investigation and determine whether they open a full investigation and that is triggered when they get a sense of after their preliminary review of whether or not any decisions and fact-finding that they engage in as a result of that investigation could have longer term implications and recommendations for how we change federal oversight, federal law related to building construction and the kind of code enforcement decisions that will have to be made on the ground.


So it is really important and very significant that they're here as early as they have been because getting them here embedded with the debris task force, making sure that they advise on how evidence should be preserved once law enforcement takes over, it will give them a better chance of answering the questions that I know I've been asked over and over, we all have been, okay, how are we going deal with a long-term implications of this, did this only impact just this building.

We have as we've said, structures like this all of the way up the coastline, all the way up the coastline of the United States. And what NIST will be able to do is their fact-finding, not a fault-finding agency, and a long-term investigation of theirs would give us a chance for me, as a member of Congress, to be able to implement and adapt changes in federal law that will help them make sure that when structures are built, that something like this could never happen again.

So, I'll continue to be engaged with our very seamless local, state and national leaders so that we can make sure that we have to continue the whole of government approach so that no daylight between any of us (ph).

Thank you so much and thank you, Mayor Levine Cava.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Congresswoman. And Governor Ron DeSantis.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): I had chance to meet with a number of the urban search and rescue teams, and as I have seen them, of course, over the last many days. But they've been going at it for over 100 hours straight. When there is danger, they run towards it. They obviously shepherded a lot of people to safety initially and they have been, every minute of every day since the building collapsed, trying to identify survivors, their putting themselves at risk in order to do that. Not only because some -- you could have additional collapse, you've had deep-seated fires that they've had to fight. It is been an incredibly hazardous environment. And they've been on the scene nonstop from the very beginning.

So I just want to thank them for what they've done. We obviously have some other folks throughout the state that have been able to also come and supplement. But those teams here in South Florida, they're the best of the best. And we have the Israelis come in and take a look. And the Israelis told some of the families what those Miami-Dade search and rescue folks did is exactly what we would have done, exactly what should have been done.

And so I think it is a testament. Our best in the country here in South Florida, some of the best in the world, obviously, Israel coming over, they deserve a lot of credit for putting themselves out there and, obviously, the search continues and it will not stop until there is a resolution. So thank you for that.

We're also working in conjunction with FEMA as well as in conjunction with both local government and private organizations to bring relief services to the family members. And that involves relocation assistance, it involves things like mental health counseling, we have folks -- we've beefed that up here on the ground. And what we want to do working with FEMA, identify all of the families, get them registered face-to-face, which FEMA is doing and is doing a good job of and being able to provide these services.

I have the head of volunteer Florida is on the ground to help coordinate with all of the great volunteer organizations. The outpouring with the charitable donations has been incredible, millions of dollars and I think there's going to be millions of more, so it is a testament to the community here in Surfside, as well as the greater Miami-Dade area and as well as Florida and the United States, because people from all across the country have been involved in that.

So those recovery efforts from the family of helping them get back on their feet, helping them cope with trauma, that is going to be ongoing. And this is something that is going to require community involvement, local government, state government and FEMA for a while. And we're in that for the long haul.

The final thing is, of course, rescue number one, care for the people that have been displaced, number two, but we do, obviously, need to identify why this happened. I was able to meet with the NIST folks today and they were created after 9/11.

They've done a handful of really thorough investigations since their creation. 9/11, they did Joplin, Missouri, from the tornados. They're doing Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. They did a Rhode Island nightclub fire that happened almost 20 years ago. And so they've never have just a straight building collapse that wasn't involved with either hazards or terrorism. And so this is going to be something that is important. It is something that is going to be very thorough and it's something that is not going to happen in a day or two. This is going to take a long time. That is the time horizon they work on and I understand that.

What I've told Mayor Burkett and Surfside, as well as Mayor Cava, because Surfside has retained people to look in and then, obviously, Miami-Dade with the state attorney, they're doing an investigation.


I think those investigations may be able to provide us with some information, maybe a little sooner than in NIST. And I think that is post because there are things that need to be done at the state level. We obviously would want to get information as soon as possible. And so we pledge that the state, if they need support from engineers, from experts, whatever we need, whether it is Surfside, Miami-Dade, we're here to help. I think the people of Florida want to understand how could this happen and then what could we do to make sure it doesn't happen again.

And so we'll be working on that for the long-term. But in the interim, thank you for everybody who is going through that rubble, thank you for being on the frontlines for us. Your work is very, very important and it is been very, very selfless.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Governor.

And now, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez.

LT. GOV. JEANETTE NUNEZ (R-FL): Thank you, good morning. I'll be (INAUDIBLE) what the governor said in Spanish.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get right back to this news briefing. We're hearing -- we're standing by to also hear from the mayor of Miami-Dade. And she's the one, Daniella Levine Cava, who usually provides new numbers, new information about those who are confirmed dead, sadly, those still missing, unaccounted for. We're going to get back to that momentarily.

But let's discuss what we're hearing right now and all of the new information. Dave Downey is joining us, a retired chief of the Miami- Dade Fire Rescue Team, also Tom Von Eesen, the former FDNY commissioner who led search and rescue operations after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Dave, you're here with me. Tell us a little bit about the concern so many are feeling based on the report in 2018 three years ago, there was major structural problems there and nothing was really done to try to fix it. And, in fact, the people were reassured, oh, the building is in great shape.

DAVE DOWNEY, FORMER CHIEF, MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE: Well, obviously, there would be tremendous concern. I haven't read the report so I don't know the details. But it is important that we look at everything. And it's going to be very important to look at what caused this building to collapse and how we can make changes and so this never occurs again.

BLITZER: Let me get to Tom Von Essen's thoughts on this, because you fully appreciate this search and rescue operation that is underway, the dangers all of those men and women who are involved in the search and rescue operation themselves are going through. It is a very tenuous situation over there and parts of that building probably still very unstable.

THOMAS VON ESSEN, FDNY COMMISSIONER DURING 9/11 ATTACKS: -- worried about all the people that have -- fire rescue trying those (INAUDIBLE) the concerns and fears of all of the families and everything and at same time protect the rescuers that are doing the very best they can and as fast as they can and as safely as they can to try to hopefully rescue someone.

BLITZER: Yes, that is the hope. You still have hope, Dave, that I know this is day five right now, and people are hearing that number, 152 people who lived in that building, still live in that building, but that building is basically gone.

DOWNEY: It is gone, but we are maintaining hope. The rescuers are maintaining hope. They're moving at the same pace they did when this first happened. I've been talking to them firsthand. I've been watching them because they rotate at 12:00 noon coming out and they've been working for 12 hours and I see them after a couple of hours and they say, we're ready to get back in. They want to get to work. They want to bring closure to these families. So they're doing everything they can.

BLITZER: You've told me you would rather be working with them in the rubble than here.

Stand by. Let's get back to the news conference right now.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA (D-MIAMI-DADE, FL): Here we are, day five, and the search and rescue work continued throughout the night, you know, 24/7, the tireless work of our first responders. These are truly the men and women who have dedicated their lives to saving lives and this is what they live for, to save lives.

So they're out there with every resource that they need to ensure that they can search this area. They can sweep the mound with cameras, with dogs, with sonar, and additional heavy machinery that has come in to start to clear away the debris.

We are exploring all possible avenues that they identify and we're going to continue and work to ceaselessly to exhaust every possible option in our search. I repeat. The search and rescue operation continues.


As the governor and the congresswoman said, and the lieutenant governor, there is going to be a thorough and full investigation of what led to this tragic event. We are going to get to the bottom of what happened here. Right now, our top priority is search and rescue and find the people. And you can see, we have a truly unprecedented mobilization effort underway with the full resources of our local, state and federal government on hand already, for days, already, and people coming in from around the state and around the world to assist us right here in Surfside. I am so grateful to all the leaders and all of the teams and especially those who were up on the mound and putting their own lives at risk to find others.

This morning we did recover another body. That brings the count to ten. The total number of those accounted for is now 135 and the total unaccounted, 151. Our detectives are working in real-time right now to audit this list. We're receiving multiple calls, still, from family members about the same loved ones and the information is coming from various sources.

I want to stress, as we have from the beginning, these numbers are very fluid, and they will continue to change. I want to provide you, as we have done and will do, the best updates as soon as we have them. Remembering that we've told the families that are waiting that they will be the first to hear, and they were the first to hear about this tenth victim that we uncovered today.

So we will continue to support all of the families and loved ones who are affected with their mental health, their social service, their physical needs. They have professionals on site, a full gamut in the family assistance center. The Miami Foundation, one of those that launched the donation site, is also on site to assist these families with the cash assistance they need to get on with their lives as well. And we know that, as was said, millions have been collected across the different donation sites, it's really quite incredible.

So, please, continue to pray for the families, continue to pray for the search and rescue team, the best in the world. We have hundreds on backup. We have the people we need. We are continuing without stop. Thank you and God bless.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back to the news conference momentarily, but we just got the new numbers and the mayor usually is the one who releases the new numbers, ten confirmed dead, one additional body, she says, has now been recovered.151 people still are unaccounted for, with Dave Downey, the former chief of Miami Dade Fire and Rescue.

It seems to be taking a long, long time. A few days ago, one confirmed dead, then four, then five, then nine, now ten. What does it mean that it's taking so long to recover bodies?

DOWNEY: It's the process. We have to be methodical. We have to deliberate. They're removing large pieces of rubble surgically so that we don't want to disrupt any possibility of void spaces that could have survivors. We're not just going to go in there with heavy machinery and big cranes and just rip everything out. And so it takes time to delayer every layer of the building.

We've got 12 floors of building and it's going to -- you've seen people up there in buckets brigades. Sometimes the only way to move big pieces of concrete is make it little pieces of concrete and they are moving through bucket brigades..

Over the last 24 hours, I'm amazed at how much rubble we've been able to remove, and they're going to continue to do that, peeling that away, but it takes time.

BLITZER: Yes. There were 152 people unaccounted for, and now 151 people unaccounted for. Sadly, one more person has been confirmed dead.

Tom Von Essen, you led the search and rescue operation during and after -- I mean, immediately after the 9/11 attacks in New York. Describe the similarities, potentially the differences, what was going on then in the search and rescue operation as opposed to what you're seeing here in Surfside, right now.

VON ESSEN: Well, Wolf, it's exactly the same process. It's just that ours was so much greater.


You had 210-storey building with an enormous amount of weight, and the fire in our buildings had disintegrated everything, almost vaporized all the material. So that's the big difference. But all the other things that The firefighters and rescue workers have to be concerned about is very similar.

One thing I think might be good news, we had an awful lot of foreign nationals that we were looking for for a long time after September 11th. And we found eventually that they weren't in any of the buildings. I'm hoping that's the same case down here, that there are a lot of people out of that 150 that weren't in the buildings, and that's why we're not finding larger numbers of fatal fatalities.

BLITZER: Yes, and maybe they were just back home in various countries in South America or whatever, and they haven't gotten in touch with authorities. Although, in this day and age, Tom Von Essen, knowing social media and all the -- I mean, 20 years ago it was a different situation. You would assume that if someone had lived in that building and wasn't there, they would be in touch with somebody and assure them, you know what, I'm fine.

VON ESSEN: You would assume that, but I think there's a lot of people who don't want people to know where they are and what they're on (ph).

BLITZER: Yes, so that's a situation. Dave Downey, so walk us through what's going on right now, how long does this continues to be a search and rescue -- actually, hold that for a moment. Let's go back to the news conference.

JIMMY PATRONIS, FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: Thank you. Good afternoon. Governor, thank you for your leadership through all this. You don't get a break, hurricanes, pandemics, you name it, this governor has been boots on the ground, he's been leading since day one. Mayor, your staff, amazing, the folks at Miami Dade County, the resilience that they provided. This is an international issue, as we've seen support come from the federal, international community.

I'm the state's chief financial officer, I'm also the state fire marshal, also a citizen of the state of Florida, proud to be here with the urban search and rescue men and women of task forces that are assigned here. This is the largest ever deployment of task force resources in the history of the state of Florida that's not a hurricane. The same number of men and women that are on the ground right now is the same as was deployed to Hurricane Michael, which was a 12-county storm event. They're working around the clock, they're working 12 hours at a time, midnight to noon, noon to midnight.

They come from Tallahassee. They come from Orlando. They come from Tampa. They come from Israel. They come from Mexico. They come from Jacksonville. They come from Ft. Myers. They come and they leave their families to come and work around the clock. Their reward is the life they save. They're making the efforts, as we speak right now, and they don't stop. They hardly rest. They come up for about 45 minutes, they check their pulse, they check their O2 levels and they go back to work because that's what they do. They work to save lives. I have got the honor to be here with them, and so proud of the efforts taking place here.

I can't say enough for the leadership of Kevin Guthrie and Florida Department of Emergency Management, for FEMA, they've provided as they know the magnitude of this event. This came from a camp and now we've created a city inside of a city, several blocks. And we appreciate all the patience that the communities have had here in the region, as we do the most amazing efforts in the history of the state of Florida to save the lives at risk because of this terrible tragedy.

Governor, thank you for your leadership, Mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Chief.

And now from the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Kevin Guthrie.

KEVIN GUTHRIE, DIRECTOR, FLORIDA DIVISION OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Hey, good morning, everyone, Kevin Guthrie of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Director.

Yesterday, at about 4:15 yesterday afternoon, Mayor Cava, Chief Cominsky asked for the assistance of a federal incident support team, specifically related to urban search and rescue. FEMA was in the room at the exact same time. The former communication of that request happened in minutes. So that request was set up and mobilized. And we have followed up with the necessary paperwork.

So, again, I think it's important for everyone to understand that as soon as Mayor Cava, Chief Cominsky, Director Ramirez need the resource, we are sitting together, we're working together underneath the leadership of the governor, the lieutenant governor, Mayor Cava and others to make sure that that happens instantly. And, again, as the congresswoman said, there's no daylight between either one of us.

So I think that's important for everyone to know. I will say that we also are mobilizing today a Florida DHS some of the bus to help people get I.D. cards for those that have been displaced. They need I.D. cards, driver's licenses and things of that nature. Those will be -- that bus will be deployed today. It should be here on site tomorrow. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Director. And now the Surfside mayor, Mayor Charles Burkett.


MAYOR CHARLES BURKETT, SURFSIDE, FLORIDA: I just have a hand full of things I want to share with you. First was this morning, I was at the site.