Search and rescue at collapsed Florida tower temporarily suspended ahead of demolition

Search and rescue operations at the collapsed 12-storey building in south Florida have been temporarily suspended, as officials prepare to demolish the still-standing portion of the tower ahead of an incoming storm.

Two more bodies were pulled from the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, near Miami, on Saturday, bringing the official number of deaths to 24 after part of the building collapsed on June 24, with 124 people still unaccounted for.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky told reporters the demolition of what was left standing of the tower had to take place as soon as possible because Tropical Storm Elsa is forecast to reach southern Florida as early as Monday.

“We’d have no control of where it lands,” he said.

Elsa was downgraded on Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 110kph.

The long-term forecast track showed it heading towards Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, though some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic Coast. Weather officials warned that it could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the Miami area.

The search and rescue mission was suspended Saturday afternoon as crews began drilling holes into the concrete of the still-standing portion of the building to hold explosives for demolition, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members.

Jadallah said the suspension was a necessary safety measure because the drilling could have caused the unstable structure to fail. If that were to happen, he said the building is “just going to collapse without warning”.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the building in Surfside is “tottering” and “structurally unsound” and demolishing it is the prudent thing to do.

"If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” DeSantis said during a news conference. “And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava signed an order calling for the immediate demolition of the building and it could happen as soon as Sunday, officials said.

"It is our fervent desire to get this done before the storm,” Levine Cava said. “Yes, we are concerned that tropical-storm-force winds could affect the stability of the building."

Fire officials said the building would be removed in a controlled manner using explosive charges, not a wrecking ball or other methods. Contractors were inspecting the site on Saturday to come up with a plan, officials said.