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At Least Ten People Dead, 151 Missing after Building Collapse; New Details Emerge about Integrity of Condo before Collapse; CNN Reports, Trump Organization Lawyers Meet with Prosecutors Today in Lat Bid to Convince Them Not to Pursue Charges. Aired 1-1:30p ET.

Aired June 28, 2021 - 13:00   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN INSIDE POLITICS: So, join Don Lemon, Dana Bash, Victor Blackwell and Ana Cabrera for a star-studded evening of music and fireworks. The fun all begins on July 4th at 7:00 P.M. only here on CNN.

And thanks for joining Inside Politics. Erica Hill and Wolf Blitzer pick up their coverage right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Surfside, Florida. Erica Hill is in New York. We're watching all the late-breaking developments here in Surfside. Today, the death toll and the demand for answers growing, growing, as the frantic search for survivors in this devastating condo collapse enters day five. Families praying for miracles in the rubble.

Here's what we know right now. Ten people are now known to be dead but 151 people are still missing. What we do not know, what exactly caused this building all of a sudden to come crashing down? But reports of structural damage leading up to this tragedy are raising some very, very serious concerns.

Let's begin with CNN's Rosa Flores. She is here with me in Surfside. Update our viewers on the latest, Rosa. You've been doing a lot of reporting on this.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A press conference just wrapped up, Wolf. And I can tell you that one of the things that really stood out to me are the conversations that the first responders are having with the families. Because, again, they're the focus, they're the ones that want to know exactly what's going on right now, because it's their family members that are under the rubble. And these families were able to go to the site of the collapse.

And according to these officials, they were able to see how the search and rescue teams are using not only their hands to remove some of the rubble, but also big machinery. And then they're also able to see the dangers, according to one official, they witnessed one of the rescuers tumble 25 feet down the rubble. And so it's things like that that they say are hopefully going to help some of the families know exactly what's going on and what's being done to help love ones about the search.

The fire chief is saying that the search continues. This is still a search and rescue effort. It is not a recovery. They said that multiple times to be clear. And they talked about some of the challenges that they're facing right now. They say that through the delayering process, they're seeing a lot of pulverized concrete, a lot of steel, a lot of large pieces of debris that they have to remove. That's why they're using the large pieces of equipment to do this.

They also mentioned that that is how they found this tenth body that has been added to the death toll. It's through the delayering process, they explained, Wolf. It's the peeling of these layers of concrete, of debris, that is how they found this other individual.

Now, I had a conversation with the Miami Dade Police director after that press conference because we've heard that they're also recovering human remains, which is very difficult to talk about. And they say that only the bodies that have been recovered so far have been identified. The human remains right now are in the hands of the medical examiner, of course. They're trying to identify those remains.

BLITZER: That's why they're asking for DNA samples to be made available in order to identify the human remains, a difficult subject to talk about as well.

And just remind our viewers how dangerous this search and rescue operation is for the men and women who are directly involved.

FLORES: It is so dangerous, Wolf. The chief talked about how they're working in 12-hour shifts. They're only stopping for about 45 minutes to check their oxygen levels to make sure that these men and women are okay to physically continue searching for life, for signs of life.

We've been talking about how painstaking this type of work is. Imagine sometimes they're carrying 80 pounds of gear on them. They are trying to get through trenches. They have to shore up those trenches, stabilize them. They, of course, have engineers alongside them to make sure that they're doing all of it safely.

At the same time, we've learned that homicide detectives are working alongside them so they can collect evidence, because that's going to be so important for the families, Wolf, who I know will want to know exactly what went terribly wrong and the reason why this happened.

And so that's going to help explain that. It's happening in tandem with the rescue efforts hopefully gives the families some solace that they're working on this right now.

BLITZER: Mission number one, find, if possible, God willing, miraculously, survivors. Mission number two, then figure out what exactly happened. Rosa, thank you very, very much.

Soon, more families of the missing will be allowed to visit this horrible site.


CNN's Nick Valencia is over at the family reunification center for us. So, Nick, so what are the families over there, and our hearts go out to them, what are they telling you?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's anguish, Wolf, there's pain. And if hope is the last thing that's lost, that too is starting to fade among the family members that I have spoken to. Pablo Rodriguez is missing his mother and grandmother. They're among the 151 still unaccounted for. And he too is losing hope. He's coming to the realization, he says, in preparing himself and his family, including his young son who continues to ask where his great grandma is, that they may never see them again.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER MISSING IN SURFSIDE COLLAPSE: As the days tick on, it's harder to hold onto any little hope that we do have that we'll be able to see them again alive. It's been especially difficult this weekend, because they were always coming over on the weekend. We would always be together. So, my son is asking when we can call them, when are they coming over, when are we going to see them again, and we can't tell him yet that he's not going to be able to see them again.


VALENCIA: This has been the ultimate test of faith for the friends and family of the unaccounted. During the briefing, which included Governor Ron DeSantis and local Miami Dade mayor, there was a phone call that I got from a friend who is missing two of her friends, as well as their six-year-old daughter. She was in the middle of a panic attack. They don't know who to turn to.

So it's almost as though journalists have become grief counselors. They've tried to talk to local officials but there's only so much these officials can continue to reiterate to them, and it's not satisfactory for those people who are looking for answers. Some have turned their anger towards confrontation towards the local officials. They're looking for someone to blame.

Getting back to Pablo Rodriguez, he says he's now turned his focus to accountability, hoping that someone will be held accountable for this disastrous failure. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Nick, thank you very, very much. And we'll get back to you. I know you're speaking with the family members all of the time.

Erica, you and I have covered these kinds of stories over the years, but I have got to tell you, actually seeing what's going on here and speaking and hearing from these family members, as you well know, these kinds of stories are so, so painful, so heartbreaking. ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: They really are. They're heart-wrenching. I was texting with a friend who was actually helping to unite some of those families with counselors and therapists to try to help ease some of that pain.

Wolf, we're also learning more about these red flags that were spotted before the building collapsed. CNN's Tom Foreman joining us now with more and what we know at this hour. Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erica, there's a tremendous amount of focus on this 2018 report, in which there were people who went in and took a look at this and a review of it. They said they had major structural damage that they found, abundant cracking and spalling.

And look at this one quote from that very same report. In 2018, again, look at what they said. They went beyond just saying that to say the failed water proofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replace the water proofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially. They were talking about water proofing around the edges of certain seams that was failing. And that outlived its life and now the concrete was being destroyed.

The cost of the repairs in 2018, $9.1 million, that was the estimate. And yet, even with that on the table, a city official met with people who live there and what he had to say to them was very different. He said, it appears the building is in very good shape. This is from meeting minutes from that meeting with the condo association.

So people, who were living there were hearing a different story and then the other concern that have been raised also that we've learned about, January 2019 an email about nearby construction where people thought it might be too close. And we've heard people say that they felt the building shaking from the nearby construction. They thought that might be an issue or an issue with groundwater down below, what was going on down there.

The bottom line is, Erica, so many people said early on, buildings like this don't just fall. That's true. Sometimes there are clues and signs and maybe that's what this is. Erica?

HILL: Maybe. Tom, thank you. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks, very much, Erica, thanks to Tom Foreman as well.

Joining us now, James Cohen, he's a structural engineer served as a structure specialist after 9/11 as well. James, thank you very much for joining us.

I know you have, what, more than 40 years experience dealing with these kinds of failure investigations. You actually reviewed that October 2018 engineering report on this building. What's your reaction to the report and what it says?

JAMES COHEN, STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Well, it seems to have been a condition evaluation report. It wasn't intended to evaluate structural strength or capacity.


And being visual, it didn't include testing or probing or any excavation to see what the condition of the foundations would have been like below the garage.

The issue was about the major structural damage to the concrete structural slab is referencing the plaza pool deck and entrance drive, which are out of the footprint, as far as I can tell, from the main building. So the likelihood that even had that failed, which there isn't an indication that that area collapsed yet, even had it failed, it had been unlikely to have affected directly the building which did collapse.

Generally, those areas are separated by the super structure. The low level plaza, there will be an expansion joint, which will structurally disconnect a plaza from the main building. It looks as though there's an expansion joint down the center of the building itself prior to the collapse in the east/west direction, which looked as though it separated two portions of the collapse from each other.

BLITZER: So did you see anything, James, in that 2018 report that would have raised enough concern to potentially start getting people out of that building immediately?

COHEN: There was nothing I saw that suggested that people need to vacate the building. What I did see in the report was this issue of major structural damage with reference to water proofing, deterioration and corrosion. The inspection did not include the foundations, which would be covered by a slab. But after 40 years in that environment, it may have been prudent to open up the slab to see how things were doing below where one could see, to do some probing, destructive evaluation.

If you have some deterioration above ground, it's likely that you'll have greater deterioration below grade. And based on the video, which I have looked at, as many have, it does appear as though the damage may have started at the base, although, because that surveillance camera seems to be on a motion detector, it doesn't show you the very beginning of the collapse. It shows you after it's commenced because there had to be motion to trigger the camera. So that critical moment of the before, after crux of the collapse is not visible.

I also would want to say, I wish all the rescuers well, to stay safe. They're doing a tough job. It's emotionally tough, it's physically draining, and they should be given full credit and honor for the work they're doing now.

BLITZER: Yes, the weather is not exactly helping out right now in terms of the search and rescue operations. It's been raining more or less for at least the past hour, hour and a half. James Cohen, thank you very, very much. I appreciate your expertise.

And we're going to have much more CNN special live coverage just ahead, including a discussion with a town commissioner here in Surfside. He's standing by live. We'll discuss when we come back.



BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage. The mayor of Surfside, Charles Burckett, says the search and rescue effort at Champlain Towers South will grow and grow in size and intensity as of now ten people are confirmed dead, 151 people are still missing. Officials are vowing they will stop at nothing to rescue everyone they can and find answers to why this building suddenly collapsed.

Joining us now, the Surfside town commissioner, Charles Kesl. Commissioner, thank you for joining us. I wish we were meeting under different circumstances. Can you give us an update though on the search and rescue effort? What's the latest?

CHARLES KESL, SURFSIDE TOWN COMMISSIONER: Well, I do know that the Israeli search team arrived this morning and they received their badges and are getting in line to work and put to work to be more experts, which more experts, more resources, which I welcome that. And I know that the Miami Dade County mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, does as well, as well as all the people of Surfside and all of the people waiting to hear news of their missing loved ones.

BLITZER: Yes. We're all praying for miracles. Have you had a chance, Commissioner, to meet with any family members, survivors? I assume you have, and what are they telling you?

KESL: Yes, I have. And they are -- they are amazingly resilient in the face of such slow news over these excruciating long days, and -- but at the same time, they're holding everyone accountable, as they should, to try to find their members, the members of their families who are missing, or their loved ones alive.

BLITZER: What's your reaction, Commissioner, to that very disturbing 2018 report and the structural concerns of this building that it raised? There were some red flags there and they seem to have been ignored.

KESL: I think that just adds to the tragedy looking at the context in which that was revealed. I heard what your engineering expert said prior to the break, and, you know, there were red flags.


But it was in the context of the recertification after the building was 40 years old, and you see how everyone at the condominium association, and all the experts soon to be working together towards that recertification. And there are clearly defects that need to be improved. But there was no cavalry alert to get out of the building.

And I'm not an engineer but it just adds to the sadness and tragedy that everyone was trying to move forward on the routine recertification and get the repairs made. Because they had -- to my knowledge, there was no one at the condominium that at least appeared to be helping with the work.

I don't know all the inner dealings, but from I've seen, and I haven't had that much time to comb through everything, it's just tragic because you don't see any ill intent or anybody blindly neglecting a warning to exit that building because it just wasn't there, based on my understanding of what was communicated.

And that's why it was such a shock to me and to everyone, but in my position, I count on the professional employees to do things the right way and we count on engineers to do things the right way. There were a slew of engineers that were involved in making those reports, and they were moving forward to correct the deficiencies. It doesn't look good, the structural damage related to concrete in the pictures that I've seen, but I'm not the expert.

So when you read it, it's all in the context of improving the building, it's not in the context of failure, at least not that I read. If there's something out there that says that, I, of course, would be very interested. I know all of us are about transparency and getting to the bottom of this so it doesn't happen again.

You know, the neighbors in other buildings, including the sister building, which has been reviewed by experts and is deemed safe at this time, but they want to get to the bottom of it too. Everyone is uneasy as to how this played out as it has, resulting in this catastrophe.

BLITZER: Do you think the people who are in that sister condominium building, the other Champlain Towers building, built around the same time by the same people, do you think they should, out of an abundance of caution, maybe go someplace else?

KESL: I can't say because I'm not an expert, and I'm at the local level. The county has many more resources and is really in charge of something like that. They're the decision-maker that shut down the building across the street which has folks on vacation in it. And they were evacuated immediately after the incident. So there are many experts willing to make that decision and are -- that's their position, and that's their purpose. So I rely on them.

But I communicated to FEMA directly. I requested and was told by FEMA that there are experts on site that have been mobilized as of yesterday, Sunday, to ensure that everything is safe in Surfside, and that includes engineers from the structural side and things like hydrology and geology. Because as a number of people have said, including the engineering you just had on, we don't know what's below us.

It's my understanding that there is a geological report that's due at the initial construction of a building but it is not a part of the 40- year recertification. And I think it should be, but I was unaware of the details of this, of the process before this whole disaster and tragedy.

BLITZER: Yes. Commissioner Charles Kesl, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all you and your team are doing right now. We appreciate it very much.

And our special coverage of the race to find survivors here on Surfside will continue right after this.



HILL: Today, lawyers for the Trump Organization are expected to meet with prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. They hope to convince prosecutors not to pursue charges, criminal charges against the company. That's according to a source familiar with the matter.

CNN Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid joins us now with more. So, Paula, what are the chances the D.A.'s office could actually be persuaded to change its mind here?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Pretty slim, Erica. Today's meeting is not expected to change the trajectory of this investigation. Just last week, prosecutors informed the company that it could face criminal charges as soon as this week.


Now, CNN has learned that these charges stem from allegations the company was trying to avoid paying taxes on certain benefits it gave employees.