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At This Hour

12 Confirmed Dead, 149 Unaccounted For As Hope Dims in Florida Condo Collapse; President Biden Discusses Wildfires, Drought Amid Record Heat. Aired 11-11:30a ET.

Aired June 30, 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, reporting from Surfside, Florida, the site of the deadly condo collapse.

And we begin with breaking news. An Israeli search leader tells CNN they have found more bodies in the rubble. Listen to this.


COL. GOLAN VACH, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: At the last 12 hours, we found some more people.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You found more bodies.

VACH: We found people. Unfortunately, they are not alive. We found some more tunnels. It was between the balconies. So the balconies, between them, remains a big space of air that we crawled, we crawled in those tunnels.


BLITZER: We're standing by for an update from the top officials on the search effort which now enters day seven. The death toll could go up, sadly, significantly later this morning. It now stands at 12 dead, 149 other people still unaccounted for.

We're also learning critical new clues about the collapse from residents who made it out alive. One survivor tells CNN that she saw part of the pool deck and a parking area collapse first, then minutes later the building came crumbling down.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with CNN's Rosa Flores. She's with me here. She's covering the search and rescue operation.

Still a search and rescue operation, day seven.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, the biggest development is from that Israeli commander saying that they found tunnels. I can tell you from being here from day one, one of the biggest worries that search and rescue teams have was the fact that this collapse happened in the pancake fashion, and it was so compact that they were worried about finding voids. They couldn't find any voids.

I asked the fire chief directly the other day to describe what that trench looked like because they -- in essence they cut about 40 feet in, deep in the rubble, and he described it as horrific. When I asked him why, describe it for me, he said it was because they didn't find any voids.

That's why this is a huge development from the commander of the Israeli team saying that they actually found voids, that he was able to crawl through some of these. We, of course, don't want to give people false hope, Wolf, but this is an important development.

Now, I want to take us back to the day that this happened about 1:30 in the morning on Thursday. People were running for their lives, Wolf. These were the very intense moments where a split second could mean the difference between life and death. And we have dispatch audio.

Some of the first responders arriving on the scene, describing it like this. Take a listen --


DISPATCHER: We have a 13-story building with most of the building gone.

This building does not look stable.

I see many people on their balconies. The building's gone. No elevators. This is nothing. I mean, it almost resembles the trade center.


FLORES: Now the 12th individual was just identified, Wolf. Her name is Hilda Noriega, 92 years of age. Her family tells us that at that moment when they arrived here at the scene, her family, of course, saw a lot of debris, there was dust everywhere, and they found a photo of her.

And they said at that moment it was so special to them because what were the chances that they'd find a photo? I just talked to her priest. She -- he described her as being very independent, fiercely independent, very loving. She loved her community.

And he also shared this with us -- he said that when they found her, she was with her rosary. She's Catholic. This, of course, tells the priest just, you know, her last moments that perhaps she was there with her faith and her faith alone.

BLITZER: Her grandson was so moved that they found not just one but two photos in that rubble, in that dust-up as well as a birthday card she had received from her friends. He read part of it to me in Spanish. It was so touching.

He said to me, grandson, this was an act of God, that out of all the things that were there, all the destruction, they found this birthday card with two pictures. That's what he said, as well.

Rosa, very, very moving, indeed.

At this hour, 149 people are still unaccounted for. While we know the names and faces of some of the victims, we still don't have an official list of all of the missing.

CNN's Ryan Young is joining us now.


Ryan, what else are you learning?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, the stories that you just talked about is so very touching. I can tell you here some of the family members have still been hanging around, walking around, just trying to get any sort of information that they can get.

We've been outside the hotel where it seemed like the governor's been here for about 45 minutes. We're not sure exactly why he's here. There's a belief that he might be meeting with some family members at this point. But there's a standby situation in terms of what's going on inside the hotel.

When we talked to family members over the last few days, they've been heartbroken with just not knowing what's next. They were happy to hear the new information about some more bodies being found. They're looking for closure.

We actually talked to one woman, Nicole Ortiz, who talked about losing a good portion of her family. Just listen to her heart breaking as she talks about the family that she's lost.


NICOLE ORTIZ, SISTER, NEPHEW & BROTHER IN LAW CONFIRMED DEAD IN COLLAPSE: It's like inhumane, you know. There's no -- there's no words to describe the pain of a loss or the agony of waiting if they're alive or not or the news. It has been really hard.

It has been a process. Every hour, every day is different. I scream, I have almost fainted, I've cried.

There's so many things. I mean, we're human, right? It has been really tough.


YOUNG: So something else that's happening and you hear the siren in the background as the trucks are approaching. Every half hour or so more and more debris is removed from the site. It's then under police escort. And you can see it right now happening as we're talking live. These are the heavy dump trucks that are moving some of that material out of the area. And everyone kind of clears out of the way.

We've also seen sometimes when those medical examiner trucks go by in the same fashion being escorted. This is that slow process that continues in the area near you and all the way out the rest of Surfside -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ryan. Thank you so much. Ryan Young with the latest on that front. All very, very heartbreaking, indeed.

Investigators, they are clearly trying to piece together what brought down this 12-story condominium building nearly one week ago. We're in day seven.

CNN spoke with a survivor, Sarah Nir, who describes hearing loud sounds minutes before the deadly collapse. She described seeing a section of the pool deck and a street-level parking area simply collapse into the parking garage below.

Listen to this.


SARAH NIR, RESIDENT WHO ESCAPED CONDO BUILDING COLLAPSE: Suddenly, it was quiet. I was checking my emails and my messages, and then I start to hear knocking sounds. Knock, knock, knock here, knock, knock -- and I said, okay, somebody probably hanging a picture on the wall.

Then it was more intense, I said, oh, probably they're doing some small renovation. And then suddenly around 1:10, I hear like a smash the wall is collapsing, the wall above me. And I said, wow, they're really doing major construction. I need to take care of this problem. It was already 1:10 in the morning. So it doesn't make sense.

So I ran to the security guy that I -- I live in the ground floor, so it's first floor. So it's really -- a wall separated between my apartment to the security guy, and I ran to him and said, do you hear the sounds? It doesn't make sense in the middle of the night, early morning, people doing construction.

He said, yeah, I hear this also noises. I said, what do you do about that? The minute I say what do you do about -- there was a big boom, and I was running to see where the sound came from. And I saw all the garage collapse.


BLITZER: She then left her apartment to complain to a security guard down in the lobby, fearing the worst. They simply ran out of the building.


NIR: And we ran out of the building, and I told my kids run as fast as you can, crossing the street, crossing, we just crossed Collins, God watches, God was waiting for us to leave the building.

And another big boom, and then we didn't see anything. It was suddenly quiet after the big boom and which was white clouds all over. And I thought by myself in this -- I thought still running and told my sons, call the police again, call the police again.


BLITZER: The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue First Responders are reporting the condo building collapsed only moments later between 1:24 and 1:25 a.m.

Joining us now is Atorod Azizinamini. He's a structural engineering professor at Florida International University.

Atorod, thank you so much for joining us.

So when you hear that account of that woman who managed to get out, literally the last moment as the building of beginning to go down, could there have been some sort of domino effect that resulted in this disaster?

ATOROD AZIZINAMINI, STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING PROFESSOR, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY: It could have been, but what I will say is this -- I think what I'm seeing from the structural engineering standpoint, and it's common in this kind of collapses, that the more evidence that comes to the surface, the more speculation you're going to see.


But until they finish all the investigation, I don't believe we are going to be able to -- more speculation you're going to see. More speculation you're going to see. But until they finish all the investigation, I don't believe we are going to be able to --

BLITZER: Atorod, I want to interrupt for a moment. We'll continue this conversation.

In Washington, President Biden is getting ready to speak. He's going to be here tomorrow. But I want to hear what he has to say right now. I don't know if he's going to refer to what's going on right now. He's got members of his cabinet there, as you can see.

He's certainly greeting everyone there. And it's going to be a very emotional day when he comes down to surfside tomorrow with the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden. They will be meeting with search and rescue teams, as well as family members in his role as comfort comforter-in- chief.

Let's listen in to the president.



BLITZER: Here we go.

BIDEN: And Governor Newsom, you're trying to make us feel bad listing that magnificent background you have over there. I'm sitting here in the White House. God love you.

Anyway, it's good to see you all really. Thank you.

For years, the president has received a briefing at the beginning of the hurricane season looking at the trends that are coming to get a sense of what's coming so that the country can be better prepared. And when I received that briefing this year, I asked for a second briefing that does the same thing but now we're doing it about wildfire season.

And we know this is -- this is becoming a regular cycle. We know it's getting worse. In fact, the threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it's ever been.

And I wanted to convene this group of governors of western state governors, key members of my cabinet, FEMA leadership, the leadership from utility industries and senior members of our White House team to make sure we're doing everything -- I mean this sincerely -- we're doing everything possible to help you prepare for what's coming. And some is already there.

The truth is we're playing catch-up. This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that's going to change if we have anything to do with it. We can't cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires, or supporting our firefighters.

And this briefing is going to be an annual event to make sure we're focusing on preventing fires, the fire threats in the first place, as well as responding when they arise.

Right now, we have to act and act fast. We're late in the game here. We're remembering the horrific scenes from last year, orange skies that looked like end of days, smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe.

More than ten million acres burned, billions of dollars in economic damage. Families that lost their homes and everything they own. And too many, too many lost lives.

And this year there could be even tougher based on the weather patterns. You know, California and some other places, drought conditions are twice that what they were last year. And right now, we're seeing record heat in Portland and across the West. And this year, you know, 21 large uncontained fires were burning.

This year, there are 36 that are uncontained and burning. They're already about 9,000 firefighters already deployed from California to New Mexico to Utah and Nevada, and it's only June.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here. I know you all know this better than any other people in the country. Fire season traditionally lasts through October. With climate change, climate change is driving the dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought, we're seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed, and that last well beyond traditional months, the traditional months of the fire season.

That's a problem for all of us. Wildfires are not a partisan phenomena. They don't stop at a county or state line or a country line for that matter. We need a coordinated comprehensive response with all the federal government working in close Cooperation to support you, the states.

That's what this is about. We want to know what you, the states, localities, and tribal governments and those on the front lines are facing in this danger and what you think will help the most.

Today we're taking critical steps to help protect American communities right away. First, we're going to make sure that we have enough firefighters on call who are trained, equipped, and ready to respond for all this fire season.


And we're going to pay them. I mean, the idea these folks are running into -- anyway. We should pay them.

Last week, I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour. Come on, man. This is -- that's unacceptable to me. And I immediately directed my team to take decisive action to fix it. Today we're announcing what I still think is not enough.

This year, we're going to provide retention incentives that's going to ensure federal wild land fires -- firefighters are making at least $15 an hour and provide for additional 10 percent bonuses for those working on the front lines.

But a onetime boost is not enough. These courageous men and women take incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages. You know the expression: God made man, then he made a few firefighters? Well, it's true. They're incredible. I've spent a lot of time, my whole career, with them.

So we're going to work with congress, and I know many of your senators and representatives have been working hard on this, to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal including improvements in their compensation, their benefits, and their work/life balance. The federal government is also offering funding when governors request it to train and equip National Guard members so they have -- they're ready to provide a surge of fire-fighting capacity.

You know, one of the things I learned over the years being so deeply involved with the firefighters, the only thing that saves a firefighter's life is another firefighter. That's the single most consequential thing. And you know, one of the hardest speeches I've ever had to make, and we've all made difficult speeches, was at the funeral of the 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shot Firefighters, when the Prescott, Arizona, Fire Department got clobbered. That tragedy happened eight years ago today. That's the reason I

mention it. It's hard to remember of all the costs that firefighters risk when they do their job and their bravery to step up and do the job.

Now, traditionally federal fire-fighting has been a seasonal job. Because the climate change and I know you all know it, I hope your constituents know it, there is climate change, it's no longer a seasonal job. This is a year-round mission. So we made sure seasonal firefighters can stay on the job as long as they're needed this year by allowing them to work beyond their term.

And for next year, we're working to make more than those positions permanent positions. So that when fires are burning, we have experienced hands enhancing our forest management, reducing the risk of future fire, the future fire season.

Second thing, we are harnessing new tools and technologies to better identify and respond before new fires grow into large uncontrolled conflagrations. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has satellite technology that is able to see from space when new fires start while they are still small. Even small as the size of your dining room table.

Similarly, the Department of Energy has a sensor array computer analysis capability that can detect in real-time the lightning strikes that might set off a blaze. And we're going to use those tools to identify fires that start in remote places and share that information so the firefighters on the ground can respond immediately before fires spread out of control.

I know that's not a full answer, but it's real. It will improve things.

We're also going to make sure that the people have the information to better protect themselves and their families from smoke and fire risks. This will include launching a new app from EPA so individuals can easily access the latest information on air quality, smoke plumes, and public health guidance.

Third, we also have to make investments in our future. That's why the bipartisan infrastructure framework investment of about $50 billion in the so-called -- anyway, won't go into it -- but bill that's caused a little attention, infrastructure bill, it's going to build resilience to extreme weather events like wildfires, $50 billion. And today I'm announcing a $37 million federal grant to Sonoma County, California, in support of fire mitigation efforts that are under way.

This grant is part of FEMA BRIC program, Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities.

My administration doubled BRIC funding to support local efforts to strengthen and resilience. Because Sonoma knows all too well the devastation wrought by fires, they were the first to apply for the mitigation funding. I encourage more communities to do so next year. And finally, I want to know that the extreme heat we're seeing in the

West is not only risk amplifier for wildfires, it's a threat in and of itself. People are hurting. It's more dangerous for kids to play outside. Roads are buckling under the heat.

I mean, again, I need not tell all of you. We need people to check on their neighbors, especially seniors who may need a helping hand.

Outdoor laborers like our farm and construction workers are going to need frequent water breaks and shade. I want to thank the governors and local leaders providing information to citizens and resources like cooling centers where people can go to get relief from the heat.

And to our utility leaders, we are ready to work with you to make sure that people have access to power including air conditioning under these extreme demand conditions while continuing to advance our climate goals.

Now, I'm eager to hear from each of you, each of the governors, as to what experience has been in your state and what we can do better to be helpful because this is an area where investing in prevention and preparation today can deliver invaluable returns tomorrow. The federal government is going to have to have your backs. That's my intention.

I'll close by just saying thank you to everyone from the Forest Service to the Department of Interior and Agriculture, to FEMA, state, local, and tribal partners, and most importantly our firefighters, for all your incredible work.

We've asked so much of the firefighters already, and I know you're going to continue to step up. I'm going to ask the Vice President Harris to see a few words, and then we'll move on.

Madam Vice President?

KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, Mr. President. First I just want to thank the president for prioritizing this for his administration.

This is a personal issue for me. As a daughter of California and I say hello to my governor, Gavin Newsom. I grew up with drought warnings. My brother-in-law is a California firefighter.

As a senator, I have visited the scene while the embers were still smoldering of the fires, Paradise, for example, California. And when I arrived there, a whole community had been wiped out by the fire. The families still hadn't been let back in.

But the open thing standing in that community were the chimneys which looked in that scene like tombstones. The firefighters that were there pointed out to me if you look at the driveway, it may be a tragic situation if the cars are still in the driveway. That means the folks didn't get out in time.

We have so much work to do on this. My home, our family home was under an evacuation order in Los Angeles. So I've been in that experience of also saying, look, the most things we can grab that are the most valuable are family photographs. Everything else doesn't matter.

So when I think about the challenges that we face as a nation, I know they are real, I also know that we're in a different climate as the president said on every level than we were even ten years ago. And there's a lot of work to do.

And part of the leadership of this administration has been to also recognize that the federal government's role in this regard has to be more than just putting out fires. It needs to be obviously supporting our firefighters especially at the federal level who are not getting paid enough.

But it's also about investing in resilience. It's about investing in adaptation. Diversifying water policy in a way we are thinking about the storage of water, both above ground and underground. We're thinking about recycling and all that we know is available to us to actually be smarter in terms of the conservation of this diminishing and valuable resource called water.

So I want to thank everyone for your leadership because you all are giving people a sense of confidence while you are trying to bring limited resources to what needs to be addressed in this growing threat of these wildfires. And the bottom line is that as the president has said, his bipartisan framework for infrastructure is going to address a lot of these challenges. But there is other work to be done. And so, I look forward to staying in touch with all of you. Again, thank you for your leadership.

BIDEN: Thank you. Governor Brown, if you'd be willing, you can give us an overview of what the challenges are, the western governors are facing --


BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor what the president and the vice president are saying. They're speaking with some governors and clearly there's a serious, very serious situation unfolding in many parts of the country, as the president pointed out. Record heat, especially in the Pacific Northwest, the weather conditions are not good.

He also pointed to some 21 large, as he described, uncontained fires that are erupting around the country right now. He says he's going to make sure there will be enough firefighters on call to deal with them, that they will be paid at quality, and there will be national guard, U.S. military national guard troops will be ready to help out and then he and the vice president made a very strong pitch for this bipartisan infrastructure compromise plan that's on the -- that's on the table, at least right now.

We're going to continue to follow this.

Once again, the president and first lady will be here in Florida tomorrow to meet with the search and rescue teams, as well as the family members. This will be a very emotional day for the president and the first lady and for the families who are so desperately anxious to get word on their family members, 149 people are still missing.

We're standing by for a news conference, the top authorities will be briefing us on the latest numbers. We expect to get new information momentarily, just a few minutes ago, I saw governor Ron DeSantis arrive here at the site. He and others, the mayors and local authorities will be going to the microphones and making statements and answering reporters' questions. We'll have live coverage of that.

But, right now, I want to continue our conversation with Atorod Azizinamini, who's a structural engineer.

Atorod, thank you for being patient. And you can see the cars arriving for all the authorities who are going to be briefing us, getting new information.

You heard that one eyewitness, Sarah Nir, report that she saw -- she survived, fortunately, thank god -- she saw the garage collapse first, then the rest of the building went down. What does that tell you?

AZIZINAMINI: I think every clue that's coming to the surface is going to give us a little more focus on trying to focus, trying to see what triggered. But I think the foundation system is going to be one of the elements that probably the investigators are going to be looking at. And at the end of the day, I don't believe you're going to find one factor that contributed to the collapse.

Everything that I have seen my professional life, there are lots of factors that comes together. It creates a perfect storm. In this case, what's most important, there are some immediate steps that we should be taking.

Immediately, I think what's important is from the information that we have right now, I think we need to develop a criteria so that we know, for example, how to inspect the other buildings that may be in the same situations. As far as finding the reason or reasons for this collapse, it's going to take some time.

Once we do that, then I think then we are going to try to say, okay, what changes we need to make to our building codes in the future. Those are long term. And one thing I would -- word of caution is that I have seen to happen in many different collapses, we have a tendency to jump into the conclusion before letting the investigators finish their jobs, and implement some policies that have a long-term effect, and it caused the society unnecessary resources that you have to spend.

BLITZER: I think that's smart. Let the full investigation go forward. A lot of speculation going on. A lot of theories going on right now.

You're a structural engineer and professor at Florida International University. This could take time, though, to come up with the conclusion.

One of the things that jumped out at me, and I'm anxious to get your reaction, the 2018 engineer's report that found, I'm looking at it now, slab under the pool deck was not sloped to drain properly and was damaged as a result. There's a lot of concern, people said they always would see water in the parking garage, around the pool, and didn't raise enough alarm bells, apparently. But was that a problem potentially?

AZIZINAMINI: That points to a bigger problem. I think we need to revisit the way we inspect our high-rise buildings. I will argue actually the more frequent inspection, it's going to be less costly at the end --

BLITZER: We see all the authorities there, there's the mayor. We see the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava walking right behind us. They're going to be going to the microphone.

Go ahead, finish your thought. That news conference is about to begin.

AZIZINAMINI: That brings -- that highlights other points. I'm of the opinion that we need to revisit the way we inspect the high-rise buildings. Forty years for structural inspection, that's late. We need to have a system in place.