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At This Hour

11 Killed, 150 Unaccounted For in Florida Condo Collapse; Biden and First Lady to Travel to Surfside on Thursday. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 29, 2021 - 11:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're live here in Surfside, Florida, at the site of the deadly condo collapse.

And we begin this hour with breaking news. We'll get an update from officials on the search and rescue effort now in its sixth day.

Eleven people -- 11 people confirmed dead, 150 other people are still unaccounted for.

And it is becoming increasingly clear that a number of warning signs were missed or were totally ignored. CNN has obtained a letter from the president of the condo board written back in April, not that long ago, that warned the building's conditions had deteriorated significantly in the three years since an engineer's report highlighted major structural damage.

Also new today, the "Miami-Herald" reports that a contractor who serviced the condo's pool just 36 hours before the collapse saw standing water and cracks in the concrete under the pool deck.

And moments ago, the White House confirmed, the White House confirmed that President Biden and the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will travel here to Surfside on Thursday. We'll, of course, have extensive live coverage of that.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with CNN's Rosa Flores on the search and rescue investigation that is underway right now.

Rosa, I know we're working your sources. It is so painful for everyone including us to hear all of this information. What's the latest?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're learning more about what people knew before this collapse about the integrity of this structure.

Now from the photos that you just mentioned that were obtained by the "Miami Herald," you could see some of that damage and we also know from the 2018 report that we've been talking about, that structural survey that in 2018 there were warnings about this. And at that point in time, the assessment was not $9 million to make the repairs and that report warned that these repairs were not made, there could be an acceleration and the deterioration of the concrete

Well, and now, we've had this letter, CNN obtained this letter that was sent to residents in April of 2021 that says, in fact, that deterioration did happen and so I want to read you a piece of this letter because it really gives you an idea of what we're talking about here.

It says, quote: The concrete damage observed will begin to multiply exponentially over the years and indeed buildable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection. When you could visually see the concrete spalling cracking, that means the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface.

We also have some sound from the reporter who broke the story on the photographs that were obtained by the "Miami Herald" showing some of that damage. Let's hear what she had to say.


SARAH BLASKEY, REPORTER, MIAMI HERALD: As he went into the pool equipment room along the south side of the building, he also saw serious corrosion of rebar that had been exposed from cracked concrete in the beams underneath the pool. And so all of that is signs of some sort of water intrusion.

He didn't know where the water came from. He didn't know if it was from the pool or the sea or rain water that just hadn't evaporated. I could tell you it wasn't raining that hard that day. You know, the flooding normal. But what he said to me is he's been in some scary buildings on beach. But even then this was stood out to him for the amount of water.


FLORES: And, Wolf, experts say that investigation should focus on the foundation, the integrity of that structure. So we'll see where it begins.

But as you could see behind us, search and rescue is here today.

BLITZER: It certainly continues. Let's hope and pray for the best but it is not looking good right now.

Rosa, thank you very much. And thanks to "Miami Herald" for that excellent reporting, those pictures were are so, so dramatic.

As the rescue teams comb through the massive debris, hope is dwindling that anyone will be found alive.

Last night, dozens of people held a vigil for the victims. It was an emotional ceremony for those desperately, desperately waiting to hear word of their missing loved ones.

CNN's Nick Valencia is also joining us here in Surfside with more on the victims.

Nick, what are you seeing, what are you hearing?


We have seen emotions among these family and friends. When we got here late Thursday there was so much hope in this community that they too would see a miracle.

There was news of a young boy who was pulled from the rubble alive.


And over the weekend, it's almost as if family and friends for those unaccounted expected that miracle to happen to their own families but here we are in day six. And it has been dwindling. With every passing minute almost, you hear and see that roller coaster of emotion. Families that I've spoken to at this point, mostly just want closure.

Now we did speak to Sergio Lozano who feels as though he got closure, his parents' bodies were found together and he says he's given solace by that. But as you can hear, the emotion for him is still very much so raw.


SERGIO LOZANO, PARENTS KILLD IN SURFSIDE COLLAPSE: After dinner, I had -- I work early in the mornings and I hugged my mom good night, kissed my dad. That was it.

I thought it was a tornado outside of my apartment. I opened the door, and I told my wife, oh, my God.

She goes, what do you mean? My parents' apartment is not there.

I was just praying to God they went quick and they were together.


VALENCIA: There has been more family members who have arrived in town because of that. This reunification center behind has expanded. Some of those family and friends have been moved to a neighboring hotel just a few miles from here.

They're asking for privacy this morning, Wolf. There has been 150 unaccounted for today. Just 11 confirmed deceased. Family members waiting for any type of news still while some are clinging to hope, others are coming to grips that they will never see their loved ones again.

And we have the July 4th this weekend coming up here, the July 4th holiday. There is very little reason to celebrate for the community which is why here in Surfside and surrounding communities, they've chosen to cancel that celebration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But the prayers continue and the hope continues even though it's dwindling.

Nick, thank you very much. Nick Valencia reporting us from here in Surfside.

Meanwhile, a new class-action lawsuit just filed in Miami on behalf of some condo residents and it includes a truly harrowing account from one survivor who lived on the ninth floor. These are Raysa Rodriguez's own words about how she and others made it out alive.

I'm going to read the statement. She writes this. Listen to this.

Something woke me up and I found myself in the middle of the room. The building swayed like a sheet of paper. I don't know if I jumped out of bed or how I got there.

I switched on my bedroom lamp, there was no light. I moved towards the alarm and switched it off. I didn't want to make my neighbors and I ran to the balcony. I opened the doors and a wall of dust hit me.

I couldn't see anything outside. I got my cell phone and called my friend and neighbor Dick. There was no answer. I called my brother Fred, the call went to his voice mail.

I ran through my apartment and out to the hallway, I looked left to the north end of the building, a concrete column had pierced the hallway from floor to ceiling. I looked at the elevators and the shafts were exposed. The doors were gone.

I knocked on several neighbors doors, no answer. I run to the exit, open the doors that lead to the outside stairwell and saw the devastation. The beach side of Champlain had collapsed, pancake and I screamed in horror.

A lady from the rubble heard my voice. She said, please help me. Please help me. Don't leave me here. I couldn't see her.

There were no lights. I was still in my pajamas and I ran inside and got dressed. Someone pounded on my door and I opened. My neighbor Yadira from 908 was standing there with her 10-year-old son Kai ye and their Maltese puppy.

I tried Jorge, my brother's husband, he answered. I remember repeating the building is gone, the building is gone. They said they were on the way and I hung up.

Yadira and I went to the balcony, first responders were arriving. I knew we needed to get out. But I thought the stairs had collapsed and that waiting for the fire truck was our only escape.

I tried calling my neighbors again. They were telling me how bad it was. Suddenly my brother Fred called. He kept repeating, get out of there. Get out. I remember telling him, that I couldn't. The stairs were gone. A firefighter got on Fred's phone and told me I needed to find a way

out. Fred said a man next to him escaped the building through the stairwell. Yadira, Kai and I moved towards the stairwell. Yadira said we have to help Ada in apartment 808.

We opened the door and enter the stairwell. The stairs have disconnected from the wall. We could see rubble on the upper floors above us.


I went first followed by Kai who was holding his puppy.

Ada was waiting for us at the eighth floor. Yadira must have called her. We made our way downstairs. Yadira helped Ada who's in her 80s and on a walker. We slowly navigated the steps downward trying to be as gentle as possible.

I was moving faster so I reached the first floor exit that leads outside to the pool area before Yadira and Ada. Kai was by my side. The door was blocked by rubble.

I pushed but couldn't move it. I told Kai to wait and move down a few more steps towards the parking garage. It was dark. I could hear water flooding into the garage. I knew being electrocuted was a possibility.

Let me continue. So I wait -- I made my way back up. I told Yadira we needed to exit through the second floor, on the second floor we knocked on several doors. I turned and noticed that our neighbor Mara in 209 had left the doors open.

I have been in that apartment several times and knew it well. I knew that exiting through the balcony was our best bet. Once in the apartment, we tried to open the sliding glass doors. They wouldn't open. We were rattled and couldn't maneuver the locks, the door finally opened, we exited to the balcony.

A really powerful, a very emotional detailed statement.

Joining us now, is one of the attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuit Adam Schwartzbaum.

Adam, thank you so much for joining us.

When you hear that, what goes through your mind?

ADAM SCHWARTZBAUM, FILED NEW CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT IN CONDO COLLAPSE: You know, Wolf, it's very personal for me because I grew up basically in Champlain Towers South. My grandparents lived there for 30 years. So when I hear these accounts and I'm speaking with victims who are representing, I can really visualize what it was like being in that building having such a personal connection. So really makes it so vivid and real for me and very emotional.

BLITZER: And did you know people who still live there. SCHWARTZBAUM: Unfortunately, we knew many people in the community.

Luckily a few friends have made it out alive and some of them have been talking about their experience on the news and others we're still waiting for word on and praying for a miracle but it is looking increasingly dire.

BLITZER: How are they dealing with this? I know you're speaking to the family members. Who are just praying to God for help?

SCHWARTZBAUM: We're trying to come together as a community. I was in my synagogue which is just down the street from here this weekend and we were together praying and we've been giving charity, calling each other and sitting and being together. I think that the strength of our community is one of the things that's really helping us get through this very difficult time.

BLITZER: So do you think it is important to file this class-action lawsuit now.

SCHWARTZBAUM: Many reasons, Wolf. One of the most important reasons is to preserve all of the evidence and to start immediately gathering everything that we need to figure out who is responsible.

One of the things that the victims are asking for is answers. They want to know why this happened and who could be held accountable. And so getting this process started now immediately starting discovery on third parties that might have information will allow us to get to the truth, which is what the victims deserve.

BLITZER: Here is part of a letter that the condo association board sent to the president -- the residents, I should say, in April of this year. Just a couple of months ago. In April of this year, the board president said this, the observable damage such as in the garage has gotten initially worse since the initial inspection from 2018.

And then he goes on to say that the concrete deterioration is accelerating and the roof situation got much worse, so extensive roof repairs had to be incorporated.

What does this letter that was written April tell you about the condition of this now partially collapsed, almost completely collapsed building?

SCHWARTZBAUM: Well, Wolf, it further confirms what our investigation is already revealing which is there were serious structural problems with this building and these problems weren't just three years ago. We believe they were decades in the making. And, in fact, we're getting some reports that there was litigation about almost 20 years ago water intrusion to the building.

So, this is -- it's further confirmation of what we're learning, there were major issues with the building that should have been fixed much sooner and this tragedy is the result of that delay.

BLITZER: When you used to go visit your grandparents who lived here, did you ever notice any significant problem -- structural problems in the building? Did anything ever enter your mind that something like this was even possible?

SCHWARTZBAUM: No. I never imagined something like this could happen. Although I will say speaking with my great aunt who is still alive, she said my grandmother would complain there was water in the garage and water in her car and water spots she'd have to clean them. She couldn't understand how water was getting into an underground structure.

So, even just anecdotal accounts from conversations with my grandmother 20 years ago are giving me -- are making me scratch my head and wonder what was going on in this building.

BLITZER: And I do have concerns about the sister tower built around exactly the same time, by the same builders, almost exactly the same building on the same kind of surface, the same kind of soil.


SCHWARTZBAUM: We don't want to jump to conclusions, Wolf. We have very close friends who live in that building. Our understanding is that the upkeep on that building has been much better.

It is something that we're here to take a very close look at and that is something that the city is going to be looking at. But we have a little more confidence than we do in Champlain Towers.

BLITZER: All right. How many residents are part of your class action lawsuit?

SCHWARTZBAUM: We're trying to represent not only all of the residents but unit owners and also anyone that was in the building at the time. So, really all the victims, all the people that were affected are in the class as we've defined it.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, any final thoughts you want to make to our viewers.

SCHWARTZBAUM: I just continue to keep hope alive and pray for a miracle because one person found alive would be an amazing, something to celebrate in this catastrophe.

BLITZER: Yeah. We're all praying for that, and let's hope 150 people still missing, still unaccounted for as they say.

Thank you very much, Adam Schwartzbaum.

SCHWARTZBAUM: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: One of the interviews filing this lawsuit. Appreciate it very much.

Coming up, we're going to talk to a Miami man whose mother and grandmother remain unaccounted for six days after the condo collapse. He says his mom had complained about problems in the building. What he thinks about the warning signs that were missed in the months and years before this tragedy. Much more of our special coverage coming up, and we're standing by for

a briefing from the authorities here. We'll have live coverage. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We're only a few minutes away from an update from the top officials here on the deadly condo collapse. We're reporting live here in surfside, Florida. Eleven people are now confirmed dead, 150 remain unaccounted for.

Families are desperate for news about their loved ones as search and rescue efforts enter now day six.

Joining us now, Pablo Rodriguez, his mother and grandmother were in the collapsed tower. His grandmother was staying there with his mom. They were both -- they are both officially listed as still unaccounted for at this hour.

Your mom Elena Blasser, your grandma Elana Chavez. First of all, what's your hope right now? What are you thinking?

PABLO RODRIGUEZ, MOTHER AND GRANDMOHTER MISSING IN CONDO COLLAPSE: Wolf, honestly the hope is that they're able to recover something and give them a proper burial and the hope that the people responsible are held accountable for this. That they investigate, because the building doesn't just fall down and it is years of neglect. I know my mother complains many times about the condition of the building, where the monthly maintenance fees were going.

It is over a million dollars in a year in maintenance fees that they made. Where was it going? Why (ph) the building in that condition?

So, I hope that they're accountable and investigated and I hope reform happens because this should never happen again.

BLITZER: How are you holding up?

RODRIGUEZ: It comes in waves. Where it is complete despair and I'm overwhelmed and then periods of disbelief and then periods where I just kind of go numb a little bit so it is rough.

BLITZER: We've been talking. You told me your 6-year-old son, he keeps saying he want to FaceTime with his grandma, he wants to FaceTime with I guess his great grandma as well. So what do you say to your 6-year-old son?

RODRIGUEZ: Right now, we're trying to keep him distracted. He's aware that the building fell. He keeps asking us, why can't we call them? Why don't we call the people that are looking for them and find them and bring them over faster?

He tried to take our phone to FaceTime them. We had to take it away. We try not to let him see the news. But he's starting to act a little different than before, so we were hoping to get news to do the whole process at once but if this continues to take so long, we might not --

BLITZER: Do you think your little 6-year-old son is beginning to understand the enormity of this crisis?

RODRIGUEZ: I think he's beginning to understand that he -- that they're gone. I don't know if he's pieced together what that actually means yet or what is actually happened. But he's beginning to act a little differently. And so, we're going to have to push up the timetable on talking to him.

BLITZER: I know you went to the site yesterday, just to see it and feel it. What was that like?

RODRIGUEZ: I didn't go on the actual site. I couldn't even get to the actual site. I passed by the site and as soon as I got out of the car there was a guardrail separating the street and I collapsed. If it wasn't there I would have just fallen on the street.

My legs gave out from under me. I cried for a good 15 minutes there. Not being able to move.

BLITZER: And when you hear the reports about all of the complaints, all the advisories, the warnings that there were serious structural problems with this building, what do you think?

RODRIGUEZ: It is so frustrating. It is a bit angering. How they let this get to that point. And then you start replaying every conversation you had with your mom with -- hearing her with other owners complaining about the maintenance and the building and the condition and where was the money going.

There are allegations there was mismanagement. I think it's clear that there was some kind of negligence involved here. I don't think anybody intended the building to fall down. But the board members lived there as well. They didn't want the building to fall down.

But it does seem the more and more you see this that they kept kicking the can down the road and now people are dead.

BLITZER: Did your mom complain about the structure of the building. Did she ever feel endangered? I know she complained about the water in the basement and the garage. I know she complained about other things. But did it ever -- did you ever hear her say I'm worried about staying here?

RODRIGUEZ: If she was, my mom was the type of person, if she was ever worried about staying there, she would have been gone and making news about the fact that everybody needs to be out there. She knew the building had issues. She knew the building was not maintained properly for many years. She complained about it.

I don't think she ever thought that it would reach the level that it would collapse because I guarantee she would not have been there.

BLITZER: Our hearts go out to your and your family, your little 6- year-old boy. [11:25:03]

What's his name?


BLITZER: Yeah, our hearts go to out to him as well. Good luck. We're praying. We're hoping for a miracle.

RODRIGUEZ: Hoping for a miracle. At this point, I'm not too hopeful but if it happens I'll be ecstatic.

BLITZER: We will all be ecstatic.

Pablo Rodriguez, good luck. Thank you so much.

RODRIGUEZ: Thanks, Wolf.

And let's keep Elena Chavez and Elena Blasser and other families of all of the victims of this tragedy in our thoughts and in our prayers.

We'll be right back.