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At Least 11 Dead, 150 Missing as Search Efforts Enter Day Six; L.A. County Says, Wear Masks Indoors Even if You're Vaccinated. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired June 29, 2021 - 13:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Surfside, Florida. Erica Hill is in New York.

The painstaking search here in Surfside now entering day six with yet again, again, no signs of life, and, so sadly, no new recoveries. Officials last hour saying the death toll remains at 11. 150 people, 150 people are still unaccounted for. They are missing. More than 800 he responders from 60 agency are now on the ground. They are assisting. And audit of all buildings already revealing deep safety concerns. Four balconies have been shutdown.

We're learning more and more about the deteriorating condition of the Champlain Towers South condo. Those pictures were taken just days before the building collapse in a basement level garage. Standing water, cracked concrete, corroded rebar We're learning more every day, and it is so disturbing.

President Biden and the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, will visit here on Thursday to resume a familiar role, that of consoler and chief. They will meet with the families. They'll meet with loved ones.

Let's start or coverage this hour with CNN's Rosa Flores. She is getting the latest information. And there's now going to be a state grand jury investigation that's already been announced, right?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're trying to learn more about this, Wolf, because the mayor Miami-Dade announced that she is talking to the state attorney here in Miami-Dade County about a grand jury investigation.

Now, it gets a little difficult, a little murky, because she says she is in conversations with the state attorney that a grand jury is always empanelled in Miami-Dade. She doesn't know if the current grand jury is going to be taking this topic or not. But she says that the conversation is there, the state attorney from Miami-Dade plans to address the grand jury and ask the grand jury if this is a topic that they would like to take on. Of course, the reason for this, she says, is that so this doesn't happen again. As you've mentioned moments ago, the inspections that are being done right here in Miami-Dade have already produced results. That building in the northeast part of the county shutting off four different balconies in that building because of safety concerns.

Now, we tried to get a little more information about that. More information is not available. But that just gives you an idea of how quickly officials are working to make sure that what we're seeing in Surfside doesn't happen again in Miami-Dade County.

BLITZER: Yes. And it's a really, really deteriorating situation as far as the search and rescue. I mean, these men and women are heroes. They're risking their own lives to find survivors. But with each day, it's looking increasingly unlikely.

FLORES: That's right. We also learned from this press conference that just wrapped up that more than 3 million pounds of debris have been removed from this site. As you know, the search and rescue teams use not only heavy equipment and cranes but also their bare hands, Wolf.

That was one of the things that really stood out to me, because officials here were saying that families were very concerned about what was being done to make sure their loved ones were taken from this rubble alive. And they described how they were able to see first responders use their bare hands, because let's remember, every single inch that moves of this rubble, is very -- could have tragic consequences, because of how -- because of stability issues on the site, because, again, it's rubble.

And so, again, like you said, search and rescue efforts continue. At this point the death toll has not changed. It's at 11. And the number of accounted is at 150, Wolf.

BLITZER: 150 people still unaccounted for. Rosa Flores, we'll stay in close touch with you. Thank you very, very much.

This is a moment where so many individuals are directly involved in this operation, so many individuals, local, fire officials and others involved in the operation. But they're bringing in experts not only from this area in South Florida, they're bringing in experts from all over the world.


We're about to speak with an Israeli commander, an Israeli colonel from the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, who is with us, and he's leading the Israeli operation. His name is Golan Vach. He's the commander of the Israeli operation here. Colonel Vach, thank you very much for joining us.

First of all, tell us what your Israeli troops are doing here. I know you guys have a lot of experience in dealing with these kinds of situations.

COL. GOLAN VACH, COMMANDER, ISRAELI NATIONAL RESCUE UNIT: So, hello, Wolf. Right now, we are working with your people, with the fire departments, with the task force. We are trying to accurate the rescue efforts. This is our main job right now.

BLITZER: How many Israeli troops are with you right now? How many people did you bring from Israel here to South Florida?

VACH: We brought 15 people, most of them engineers and search and rescue experts, but as well, we brought a population behavior officer that they get involved with the family and with the families, and get information from them where to accurate the rescue efforts and mediate the situation to them.

BLITZER: And, Colonel Vach, I know that you and your fellow Israeli troops who are here, you have enormous experience in dealing with these horrendous situations. But just briefly, tell us where you've been in similar circumstances over the years.

VACH: We've been in Turkey, '99, in Haiti, 2010, in Albania, 2019, in Mexico, 2017. And we saw a lot of places like that. This pile, this building collapsed very, very badly, if I can use this word, because it collapsed into itself, and all the bedrooms that we are looking for, because the people slept in the bedrooms, are under four or five meters of concrete. So this is what they're doing right now, penetrating the concrete.

BLITZER: And you've been meeting with family members who are desperately hoping and praying that their loved ones are still alive. Tell us about those meetings that you've had with these wonderful people.

VACH: All of them -- we are very excited to meet them, to talk to them, and we feel like family members. We know how they feel, because we saw it all over the world. And we get information from them and we are looking at the same places that they say that they heard something, that they think they are.

We are observing 24 /7. If there are new tunnels, and I can say, Wolf, that we found today and yesterday new spaces that we are going right now in the side, so there is still hope. And I will recommend to operate heavy vehicles to stretch the perimeter of the building to expose more layers and to fast the operation.

BLITZER: So you think there's still -- realistically, it is day six. There's still hope you'll find, God willing, somebody alive?

VACH: Still, one week, I have a solid hope that we will find someone. After one week, it's minor, very much.

BLITZER: It's very unlikely? Is that what you're saying?

VACH: Yes.

BLITZER: It's already day six right now and I know the search has been desperate. Have you ever seen something like this, a beautiful 12 storey condominium building along the water, along the beach, all of a sudden simply in the middle of the night, 1:30 in the morning, simply collapse?

VACH: Never.

BLITZER: There's no hurricane. There's no terrorism. There's no bomb, as in Oklahoma City or something like that. All of a sudden something happens. In the Middle East, have you ever seen anything like that?

VACH: I never saw something like that. And I can say that this is the most difficult, the most difficult site that I ever worked, but we still have hope.

BLITZER: The most difficult from what perspective? We know from war perspectives --

VACH: Rescue challenges, rescue and engineering security and chances. Because there are major, major dangers, issues that we must consider when we enter rescuers into this site. The building is not so stable, and all the firefighters of the task force that we have their signal, and we have their patches here, this is for the day shift.

BLITZER: This is South Florida Urban Search and Rescue.

VACH: This is for the night shift, okay?


And they put their life in risk to do this job, and I think they do it very good.

BLITZER: I know that the mayor here and others have said that when some of the family members met with you, the Israeli contingent, and you said that the local authorities were doing everything possible, and you totally agree with what they were doing, they were reassured. Tell us about that.

VACH: We know Americans. We know task force. We are training for years together. We share the same methodologies. We share the same technologies. And we couldn't do better. What we contribute to this effort is our second opinion, our perspectives, and we have very large support from Israel. We have an analyst that builds of 3D models off site according to the layer of the missing people. All of that is going to accurate the rescue efforts.

BLITZER: It's a really major mission. Anything else you think our viewers need to know about the Israeli operation that's underway? Are more Israeli troops coming here?

VACH: We got the other five that we asked Israeli government to send. They arrived this morning and they're on the site. I want to say to the families that we came only for the families. We don't have any other people in front of us. We are looking in their eyes twice a day and we are with them. We are going to make a long and difficult way.

BLITZER: Yes. 150 people still unaccounted for and that number is fluid. It could go up. It could go down, but it's still such a sad number. Colonel Vach, will you thank all the men and women you brought here from Israel for what you're doing? We're grateful to you.

VACH: I will.

BLITZER: Colonel Golan Vach of the Israel Defense Force, thank you very much for joining us.

And let's continue the conversation with Michael Chajes. He's a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware. Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

Let's talk a little bit about what's going on right now. You've seen these photos the pool contractor actually took as investigative engineers were searching for the cause of this failure. What's your analysis as we look at the horrendous pictures that emerged over the past 24 hours?

MICHAEL CHAJES, PROFCESSOR OF CIVIL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING,UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf. I want to start by saying my thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in this horrific tragedy.

And in terms of the pictures, yes, they certainly raise major concerns about the water intrusion, the corrosion, the deterioration of the concrete and the structure, and so it is very concerning to me to see those pictures.

BLITZER: The Miami-Dade mayor says a building audit of the area has already uncovered serious issues. Does the process of inspecting buildings here along the South Florida Coast, for example, need to change?

CHAJES: Yes, that's a great question, Wolf. And let me just go back a second and say that the pool structure is still intact. So, I am most concerned with the reports of the membrane that was found under the pool deck. And I think people will look at deterioration at the intersections of the columns in the slab. Those tend to be joints, tend to be places where failures happen.

And so I think as we go to inspect other structures in the area, we're in a very aggressive environment with salt water, with moisture, which will corrode rebar causing concrete to crack and spall. And so I think we need to go through structures, certainly those on the coastline, certainly those that are older at a more frequent basis and make sure that we don't see these types of damage.

Sometimes they're hidden. The topside of the pool deck obviously was invisible, but the bottom side was. And when I heard there was frequent water in the parking garage, that's telling that water is coming through the concrete, it's getting to the rebar, it's going to be causing deterioration. So I think we need to go through all the buildings locally in addition to the issues that were mentioned about the subsiding.

So we know that this is built on soils that are unlike Manhattan where there's bedrock, which are not nearly as stable. So we need to be looking for cracks on walls and other cracks that can occur when the building is differently settled (ph).

BLITZER: Yes. They have got to clearly learn everything that happened, why this happened to make sure it doesn't happen again. Professor Michael Chajes, thank you very much for joining us.

CHAJES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a question we all want to know, how to answer. How long can people survive trapped under the rubble?


Let's discuss this and more with our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, you were here the other day and you've covered these sorts of disasters around the world, whether in Haiti, Pakistan, Nepal. What factors are at play here if there are people still trapped, and as we know, 150 wonderful, wonderful people that were just in that building in the middle of the night, 150 people are still unaccounted for?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. Well, I mean, it's tough to talk about and, I mean, you're seeing it with your own eyes. People have seen the way the building collapsed, as so many people have talked about is a major factor.

When you look at Haiti, for example, where you did have people who survived for even up to a couple weeks sometimes, these were different sorts of collapses in some areas, where it would be a lean to collapse. So the ceiling was sort of leaning on one side versus just sort of falling completely down, as has been described as a pancake collapse, that makes a difference. Access to the basics, obviously air, water, and food and then what sort of health the person was in in the first place, in terms of their own resilience.

You have got to take into account climate conditions, access to water from rainfall, things like that. So there's lots of different factors, Wolf, which is why people don't put an exact sort of timestamp on these things, but I think that's how a lot of rescue workers who include trauma surgeons and other doctors and nurses, that's how they approach this.

BLITZER: Yes. We heard the Israeli commander, Colonel Golan Vach, he still has some hope, maybe at least for another day, he thinks a week. But how long, Sanjay, can someone go without water or food and survive?

GUPTA: Yes. I mean, some of it is obviously dependent again on the person. But people, generally, sometimes they refer to the rule of threes. Again, it's sort of a general rule, but rule three, three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food.

Again, those are general sort of terms. And you may be getting access to water in different sorts of ways, from rainfall. They are obviously using a lot of water. I saw, Wolf, still ongoing at some point, spraying water on to the area, on the rubble. So there may be access that way. But that's sort of the general rule, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, and we're all praying and hoping. And as you know, there have been storms here over these past few days including today. There was a considerable amount of rain. The forecast actually shows showers and thunderstorms daily throughout the week. I assume if there is water coming down through the rain, that potentially could help the chance of survival, right?

GUPTA: Yes. You know, Wolf, I was thinking a lot about that, because when I was down there, you know, you sort of had three things sort of happening simultaneously. The rescue efforts were underway. You had these fires that were sort of internal fires that required a pretty constant supply of water being sprayed on to the rubble. And then as you point, there were rain showers.

What I saw, Wolf, and I'm sure you saw this as well, is that, overall, obviously, having access to water in some ways would be good if somebody were still trapped and able to get access that way, that would be good. But, overall, it seems to greatly slow down the overall progress of the workers when you have significant rainfall, especially if there's thunder and lightning involved.

So on balance, maybe not as helpful, but, clearly, any way that you can get water, which they've been doing, spraying the water on to the rubble could make a difference.

BLITZER: It certainly could. All right, Sanjay, thank you very, very much. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta has covered these kinds of stories, sadly, over many, many years.

Erica, I got to tell you, I've been here now for a few days. It doesn't get any better, especially as you speak with family members, you start crying, they're praying and they're hoping. It's day six. We heard this Israeli colonel say maybe there's hope for another day or so. God willing, there's hope a little bit longer. But these families increasingly are and so sadly coming to the conclusion there isn't much hope at all.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it is just heartbreaking and to hear each and every one of those stories as they do their very best to hold onto hope for their loved ones. Wolf, thank you.

We are following a number of other stories this hour as well, including a major development in the fight against coronavirus. The nation's largest county now advising residents to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, as that dangerous delta variant takes hold. We have those details next.



HILL: Los Angeles County, the most populated in the U.S., says it wants people to wear their masks indoors even if vaccinated. Why? Well, health officials blame the spread of the delta variant. With us now is Dr. Jorge Rodriguez. He's an internal medicine specialist and viral researcher in Los Angles. Doctor, always good to see you.

So, when we see this news, why would people still need to wear a mask inside if they're fully vaccinated?

DR. JORGE RODRIGUEZ, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I think you hit on it, Erica, the fact that we are the most populous county in the country. Even though 60 percent of the people in this county are fully vaccinated, 40 percent are not, which is approximately that's 4 or 5 million people at high risk.

This variant is escalating in how infectious it is. It is basically doubling and it's estimated that approximately 50 percent of the people in L.A. County that are newly converting to COVID are getting the variant.

So people that are vaccinated, even though it is safe for us not to get sick from the variant, we still don't know how infectious it is as far as whether we can spread it.


So I think the county is being very cautious and it is a recommendation. It isn't a mandate, that in crowded places people still wear their mask.

HILL: Could you see this happening in other large cities or other areas?

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely, and I think it should. Remember, throughout the U.S., this variant is doubling every two weeks. We've gone from 10 percent to 20 percent in a couple of weeks, 40 percent in a month, approximately 80 percent of all new infections is estimated in the U.S. are going to be the delta variant, which is more infectious and can cause a lot sicker disease.

HILL: Look, we're getting increasing information about just how effective these vaccines are. Moderna today saying the lab experiment show the vaccine does work emerging variants, including the delta variant. Pfizer has found similar.

25 percent of people though who believe they've had COVID said they don't want to get a vaccine. What do you think is missing in the messaging to those folks?

RODRIGUEZ: First of all, I think there's a lot of fantastical thinking. First of all, they don't know whether they had it or not. Secondly, just because you have had it, probably you're protected but it doesn't mean that you're going to be.

I think the message that is missing is how safe these vaccines are and how effective they are. And I think part of the message that we need to get is if you haven't been vaccinated, you may get infection and you will survive probably, but you are going to create variants. If you're not vaccinated and you have access to vaccines, you are part of the problem.

HILL: There's been so much talk as we lead up to July 4th about President Biden's goal. He wanted one shot in 70 percent of adults, those 18 and older. I just looked at the latest numbers, we're just over two-thirds right now. The campaign doesn't stop, obviously, on July 4th. But is there a number realistically you think that we could get to before the fall and the winter?

RODRIGUEZ: I think we could realistically, honestly, before September, October, get to 75 or 80 percent, seriously, God willing. People need to understand that we are so privileged to have these vaccines at our disposal and not to take advantage of that is not just unethical, it is almost -- well, it's almost criminal, if you ask me.

HILL: Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, always good to speak with you. Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: Likewise.

HILL: It has been now six days since that condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida, each day, understandably, feeling longer for those waiting for any news on their missing loved ones. You're going to meet some of those family members next.