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At Least Four Dead, 159 Unaccounted for in Condo Collapse. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired June 25, 2021 - 13:00   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN INSIDE POLITICS: CNN Films Lady Boss, The Jackie Collins, airs Sunday at 9:00 P.M. on CNN.

And that's it for us today. Thank you for joining Inside Politics. Please join us back here on Sunday morning at 8:00 A.M. Eastern Time for Inside Politics Sunday. I'll be talking with our roundtable about the politics of the week.

But Erica Hill and Chris Cuomo pick up our breaking news right now.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN NEWSROOM: All right. We're watching the rescue efforts in real-time in South Florida. And the situation is very hard. And it is right now in a moment of even greater difficulty.

As you can kind of see over my left shoulder, that haze is fire. They've been dealing with rolling pocket fires. Why? Because an entire building collapsed and the infrastructure along with it and everything in it, which means every kind of chemical in every unit, you know, dozens of units involved, cars, of course, power lines, fuel lines, water, everything that is feeding one another in a cycle of incendiary incidents.

And that's what you're seeing right now, a fire that popped out of a low floor. It starts to burn in color, which means that's the fire actively eating through what its fuel is. Eventually, it starts to turn more white, which is proof the suppression efforts are gaining ground.

That is of the utmost importance. Why? Because fire will kill who is still inside and alive, God willing, and it can hurt and kill the people who are trying to get in to do search and rescue. So they have to deal with it. In fact, they had a hose on this building all night long trying to deal with fire, one of the reasons that you see all the water in the basement earlier today.

Now, work in the basement has been slowed, and they're trying to approach through different avenues of opportunity to get penetration into this building. Why? Because the water is rising, it's a high water table here, right? This is South Florida right on the beach, and it's dangerous. And it's not creating opportunities.

The rain has been a huge factor here. While it does cool it off for a second, the humidity is obviously South Florida in the summer. It's humid. But it is also compacting the pile. It's creating weight, which is creating shifting, which is creating peril, danger for the people who are doing what you're seeing right now.

Now, this is not in real-time, but this is the real deal. They're not just picking up buckets and going by hand. This isn't some kind of minuscule effort. They are looking for avenues of opportunity. Are there tunnels? Are there voids? Is there a hard enough piece of that pile for them to use it as a platform to bring in harder and heavier equipment? That's what's happening. There are over 130 men and women on that pile doing the best, and they've been in the worst situations.

Now, that said, we've never seen anything like this in America, a big tower collapsing under its own weight. This wasn't Oklahoma City. It wasn't incendiary device. There's no proof of that. Certainly, it wasn't terrorism. There's no proof of that. So how did this happen?

It's frightening for this community because this building was not special, okay? There are a lot of buildings like that on this road? Is there something that they need to know about, or was this freak, was this an abhorrent act that they're going to have to figure out?

They're not doing that in earnest right now because they have to deal with the imminency of search and rescue. But that question hangs heavy on the minds of this community, a community that is literally living a shared agony of the unknown.

I'm joined, of course, by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's been talking to the people who stand by waiting to help people, and the waiting continues.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It does. And so many of the people who are part of the search and rescue mission have all different skill sets, as you mentioned. They know how to break and breach, like you were describing, but also to shore things up. Because the problem is you don't have been these voids always that are natural. You find something, you've got to maintain it. That's the shoring up process, talking to trauma surgeons who are standing by, because as we talked about before, these are some of the most intricate rescues of all. It's not as simple as just simply lifting rubble off of somebody. You've got to understand what's going to happen to their body as soon as you do that.

CUOMO: And I explained that somebody. So, the common sense tells you they're trapped. Take the heavy stuff off, now they're good? Not so easy.

GUPTA: If it happens very quickly, sure. But if you've been trapped for a period of time, you have to assume that there's a certain amount of impact on the muscle, on the tissue, you release a substance called myoglobin, which can be toxic to the body.

Right now, it's trapped. The myoglobin it's trapped in that area along with the tissue and the muscle. As soon as you lift that up, that can suddenly go into the rest of the body and can be quite devastating. People can develop hypertensive shock. It can be a really critical situation. So there are two things typically that they rely on. That's why the trauma surgeons are here. Sometimes, and I just -- I found out this has not happened yet, but they stand by to potentially have to do an amputation. That would be the safest in some situations, or sometimes they'll put in an I.V., give fluids to try and flush out myoglobin before they actually do the extrication, the actual rescue.


There's no absolute sort of formula to this but these guys, as you point out, Chris, you and I saw them at work in Haiti. The search and rescue folks, the trauma surgeons, many of them were there. They go from Miami. They go into these situations, so they know how to do this, but they haven't had a lot to do as of late. There have been four people who have died. As you know, one of those four actually did go to the hospital first, subsequently died, sadly, and then was taken the morgue. There have been rescues, obviously but not requiring that level of care at this point.

CUOMO: So, search and rescue, as I understand it, subject to what you're about to say, is a co-efficiency, it's a function of two things. One is where are the opportunities for them over time, and, two, what is the risk to them over time. And that is part of the balance also, especially with this fire, and this weighting down of a pile that is shifting.

GUPTA: No question. And that is a significant risk talking to these guys, structural instability. We're looking at a building that's part of a building that collapsed. They have structural engineers and they're looking at that, but that is a potential risk. We already know that debris has been falling on some of these rescuers as they're trying to do their work. Water, gas, sewage, all these other things are potential problems as well.

It's an unknown environment. I mean, it's really unpredictable environment. So you keep hearing they're going inch by inch slowly for that reason. We don't know, is that going to be a live power line? Am I going to disrupt something over here that's going to cause more of a problem in another place? It's a really fragile sort of environment.

Again, they've done this before, not here in this country, for the reasons you mentioned. But they've done this sort of work in places around the world.

CUOMO: I appreciate you, brother. We need you in these situations to understand. And also there's a sensitivity involved. We are surrounded by members of this community. They want answers. They are scared. They see the fire and smoke. This is tight -- people -- a lot of people of faith here. They lived through the pandemic. There are a lot of elderly people who made it through hard times. There was so much happiness down here that people had survived the pandemic and now this.

Now, something else that I'm seeing miscommunicated in terms of people's perspective. This pile is not that high in relation to the height of the tower before. True. There have been pictures that you can see on the internet of the pile in relation to the pool that is adjacent to the pile. True, it's not that high. That is feeding a misperception that it should, therefore, be easy to get into it because it's not that high. This is not a mountain to climb.

That is -- and, again, with all sensitivity, that is a challenge, because it shows just how compacted this building was on top of itself. You understand what I'm explaining? That those floors that were very high have now been condensed tightly, and the water is making it more so.

Now, does that mean that it creates less of a degree of survivability? Yes. There's no reason to fake the reality. But there is still hope. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing search and rescue because it's very dangerous for them to do so. They believe there are voids. They are hearing sounds, still, not as much as they were before, but that can mean different things also.

So, that is the reality on the ground. But this is complex. This is a community in waiting. The agony of the unknown is the worst in situations like this. Trust those who have been around it.

I want to bring in a representative from here, a member of Congress, you know her well, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I'm sorry to be with you under these circumstances but you're needed here. You are surrounded by constituents who have never seen anything like this. And they're coming out of a hard time. And they don't know the fate of people that are in a pile that is burning behind them.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): This is an unprecedented tragedy without a comparison. I've just come from the reunification center after talking with families. This community is so close, so tight knit. There's a predominantly Jewish community here, which is even more tight knit. All through yesterday from the time I woke up until all the way through 9:00 last night when I had flown down here and been here for most of the day, I have friends, and former staffers, who had family and friends in that building. And you know, there's 750,000 people in the congressional district. And it's an everybody knows somebody kind of thing.

The families are understandably frustrated and frightened and hopeful. And they're wondering why is this taking so long. They think they don't see activity. I'm trying to explain to them it's a painstaking process, as you mentioned and that is complicated by that there's still a building that's now unstable attached to it, the rubble itself is unstable, and we have to make sure we don't have anyone else hurt or perhaps killed.


And the safety of the search and rescue team as well is something to be --

CUOMO: How do you handle emotionally being in a situation where the local rabbi, obviously, it's a very robust faith community, there are lots of places of worship, different denominations faith, praying, reading the psalms, people desperate for miracles and watching a building burn, and with each passing hour, they are broken by this?

SCHULTZ: It is so incredibly hard. And the faith community, all faiths, has been here. This place is permeated with pastors and rabbis and so much religious help. But this is a community that's going to survive this by its own resiliency. These are communities, whether it's the Hispanic community that come from third world countries that fled strife or the Jewish community who has generations of resiliency, this is a community that is sticking together, going to come together, needs to lean on one another, and then all of us.

I just want to stress, this is a toxic time in our country when it comes to politics but there has been no daylight from between the local, state and federal representatives here who are all working together, we're all rowing in the same direction, and we're trying to make sure that we lift this community up and can help them take the steps necessary to climb out of this.

CUOMO: And somebody said to me early, red and blue died the same way in this building.

SCHULTZ: No, that's right.

CUOMO: And everybody is crushed the same way. Everybody is scared the same way. Everybody family feels the same thing. There is nothing mixed about crisis. And we're hoping that in the worst of a situation, we see the best in ourselves. But this phase will take the time it takes. And then there is a haunting question, which this does not happen in America.


CUOMO: And, yes, we've heard every engineer say so far this will likely be a one-off that was unpredictable, undetectable, not correlated to what was said about this building in its 40-year recertification. Okay. But there's also nothing unusual about Champlain Towers related to all the other art deco and beautiful buildings up and down Collins Avenue and the others in South Florida. People are going to be worried and they're going to want answers.

SCHULTZ: You're echoing my thoughts yesterday, is I'm waiting for the calls that we will inevitably get from constituents, what about my building? This building isn't unusual. The whole entire road is dotted up and down the beach in my district with buildings just like it. And we have resiliency issues that we have to look at. We'll have to get to the bottom of this.

We have to make sure that we can do everything we can to save any potential survivors first, and make sure that the remains are taken out. We have Jewish families that -- it's important in our faith tradition that bodies are intact, and obviously that's challenging, or that the parts are buried together.

There's so many different moving parts to this tragedy. But we are going to -- I sit on the House Oversight Committee. We're going to need to get to the bottom of this. Thankfully, President Biden not only approved all the relief, unprecedented relief, because this is a private structure. Normally, the kind of disaster relief that --

CUOMO: So, you've gotten everything you've asked for?


CUOMO: Government has been responsive?

SCHULTZ: Unprecedented assistance from FEMA.

CUOMO: Local, state, federal?

SCHULTZ: Yes. And FEMA, especially, who usually doesn't -- we're used to dealing with them, they don't approve this kind of relief that the president has authorized for a private structure. But like we've said, this is a tragedy without precedent and we have to make sure that there's a thick safety net underneath these -- these are communities -- Surfside doesn't have a big budget. They're going to have huge costs that are going to be able to be reimbursable. There are families that are now without a home. No one is going into that building. The surrounding areas are going to need long-term housing assistance. There are going to be funeral expenses that are going to need to be taken care of. And all of that assistance has been approved.

But going forward, we're going to need the federal (INAUDIBLE), the similar body like the transportation safety board that investigates structural issues that arise here, they're going to probably get involved in this. We have to get to the bottom of this because, look, I -- we all have to hope it's a one-off, but I don't know that it is. We don't know that -- I mean, lots of these buildings are built the same way over and over and over again, all the way through decades.

CUOMO: Yes. Look, I mean, there are going to be layers of this.

Well, here is what we know. I don't know the local resources, the first responders. The word is good. The response was good. The FEMA men and women who were involved in this from the task force, especially the one that's on the structure right now, I've been with in bad situations.

SCHULTZ: They're remarkable professionals.

CUOMO: And they know what they're doing.

SCHULTZ: They do.

CUOMO: That's the good news. The bad news is this is going to be an emotional toll the likes of which you've never dealt with in your district.

SCHULTZ: That's right.

CUOMO: This is not a hurricane. this is not where it's understandable.



CUOMO: This is unfathomable coming out of a pandemic, and the pain is already palpable. And I feel for you, because they're going to be looking at you and they're going to be leaning on you.

SCHULTZ: We're going to be here.

CUOMO: And it's good you're here now and they're going to need you. Representative, we're here to help.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: Not just to say the obvious.

SCHULTZ: It's going to be a long haul.

CUOMO: I wish, again, God willing, we have better stories to come.

SCHULTZ: I hope to talk to you when we do.

CUOMO: I look forward to that.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right. We're going to take a break. As things change here, we will be on scene, we will be monitoring. You can stay with CNN.



CUOMO: All right. We're getting some updated information about what's happening in and around the search and rescue here, because there are a lot of people affected by this, 159 unaccounted for. That's a countless number of families and extended family members. We just heard from Senator Marco Rubio's office that emergency visas are being approved for families. That's going to be really important. Because the reality is here, if things don't change in the near-term, you're going to have an unprecedented event here for families to process and deal with. We're hoping for good outcomes. We're hoping for any outcomes at this point. But getting family here is a priority.

Now, another development is that search and rescue is a specialization. All first responders know how to do it, but some are trained on it and do it much better than others. Florida is unusual as a state and that it has multiple search and rescue teams that train and go all over this country and the world to do exactly what you're watching on your screen. They actually have two teams involved right now in this rotating. That is a huge benefit. Meaning you could not ask for better in terms of the men and women who have been tasked with going through this pile.

I am not saying this just as a point of information. I'm saying it from a point of personal experience. I know the men who are involved with the Task Force Two that are now in here spelling the first crew that we're in. I've seen them work. I've seen them in ugly environments.

One of which was not just a hurricane or what you're used to seeing but an unprecedented event in our history, that taxed first responders in a way we'd never seen before, and that was 9/11. I was there when the buildings came down. I was there waiting for people I knew who were never found and I watched the people dig for days and weeks and many of the challenges and the lessons are being applied to this pile right now.

One of the men who was fundamental in that effort and can help us fundamentally understand what it means here and now is former Commissioner of the New York Fire Department Thomas Von Essen.

Commissioner, can you hear me?

Chief, we haven't -- Chief, I can hear you. Can you hear me?


CUOMO: All right, good, thank you. It's been a minute since we were having exactly the conversation we're going to have right now. We were together a lot after 9/11 with you helping us understand what the people in your charge were doing to try and find people and how hard it was. How do those lessons apply? But, first, just what does it mean to you that since 9/11, we haven't seen anything close to this nature or scale as what we're dealing with right now?

All right, chief, I can't hear you, and I'm not going to waste your time. Let's do this. Let's take a quick break. Let's try to get the comms right with the chief, because this is the best analog we have is 9/11. And I mean, that on multiple levels. Forget about the terror aspect and, really, the government interface of what to do about if aspect.

The families, the community, the agony of the unknown, the complexity of the search, that is the only other time I've seen this. This doesn't happen in America. Buildings don't fall under their own weight. This wasn't just an accident. There's going to be a reason for this. And we don't know what it is right now. There are a lot of variables in the air. And, frankly, we haven't had time to process any of them with the people who know what they're talking about, but Tom Von Essen does.

So let's take a break, we'll come back and we'll have a conversation that counts.



CUOMO: We are here following the situation. Now, you see people on that top loader there. What they're doing -- it's not a top leader. It's an extended crane ladder. What they're doing is they're looking, okay? There have been pockets of fire that they're trying to figure out where it's coming from and what they're doing. This situation, simply put, is hard. It is hard for the first responders. It is hard for the people who are even experts at this search and rescue. It's hard for a number of reasons and it's very hard for the family, the loved ones and the extended community members of the 159 who are unaccounted for, let alone the four we know so far who have been retrieved from the building deceased. Three came out deceased. One was alive, taken to the hospital and succumbed thereafter.

There are people looking with waves of disbelief. This doesn't happen in America. People live through the pandemic. They sheltered down here in Florida, made it through and now this. It was over in an instant in the middle of the night. They haven't heard from people. The numbers are moving around. They're standing a block away and watching it actively on fire, and it hurts. They are praying, they are lost and they are in pain.


And the first responders are acutely aware. And they're going in, they're trying to extend their shifts, they're trying to do more.