Miami-Dade prosecutor taps grand jury to investigate Surfside collapse as federal probe could take years

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The state prosecutor in Miami-Dade announced Tuesday that she will ask a grand jury to investigate the building collapse in Surfside, Fla. 

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement the grand jury probe into the Champlain Towers Condominium will “look at what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations.” 

“Few words can describe the shock and horror that the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building has evoked in all of us,” she said. Before initiating the grand jury probe, Rundle deployed a senior prosecutor to the site of the collapse that morning it happened “to collaborate with the engineers and other investigators to assist as needed.” She has visited the site multiple times and sent victim specialists “to be available around the clock to help the grieving friends and family members with all necessary support.”

“Our hearts and prayers are with every victim, family member, friend and co-worker who has been affected by this tragedy,” she said. “As your State Attorney, I assure you that my attorneys, staff and I are dedicated to ensuring that those who were lost will never be forgotten.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has sent a federal team of scientists and engineers to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether to launch a full probe of what caused the building to come down.

“I know from personally speaking with engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that their investigation to determine exactly how and why the building collapsed will take a long time. It is painstaking and complicated work,” Rundle said. “I will not do anything to jeopardize their investigative findings which will hopefully prevent future tragedies like this from happening.”

“However, this is a matter of extreme public importance, and as the State Attorney elected to keep this community safe, I will not wait,” she said. 

The NIST also investigated disasters such as the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and a Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people. Previous investigations have taken years to complete.

Search and rescue teams look for survivors at the Champlain Towers South residential condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday’s fatal collapse. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava confirmed Tuesday evening that the death toll in the building collapse had climbed to 12 people, leaving another 149 still unaccounted for. Earlier that afternoon, she said she was “very supportive” of the grand jury investigation initiated by Rundle. 

“I have pledged my full cooperation as she moves forward,” Cava said. “I will do — and my team will do — everything possible to aid them in their efforts to continue that investigation.”

Rundle described a “long tradition” her office has in presenting more than just criminal cases to the grand jury, which had issued a report in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew that led to better building codes. It has also made recommendations regarding the environmental integrity of Biscayne Bay, the financial survival of Jackson Memorial Public Hospital, and the safety of our public housing communities.

The possibility that severe weather in coming days could further stretch Florida’s search and rescue resources prompted state officials to ask the federal government for the additional team, Kevin Guthrie of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said Tuesday. Already, intermittent bad weather has caused temporary delays in the search.

Gov. Ron DeSantis evoked a well-known military commitment to leave no one behind on the battlefield and pledged to do the same for the people still missing in the rubble.

“The way I look at it, as an old Navy guy, is when somebody is missing in action, in the military, you’re missing until you’re found. We don’t stop the search,” DeSantis said at a press conference Tuesday. 

Guthrie said the new team, which would likely come from Virginia, would be on hand if severe weather hits the area in the coming days and allow crews that have been working at the site for days to rotate out. Authorities said it’s still a search-and-rescue operation, but no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse last Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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