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President And First Lady Biden Meet Rescue Teams, Victims' Families In Florida

NOEL KING, HOST:

Search and rescue operations have started up again in Surfside, Fla. They were suspended for 14 hours yesterday because there were some concerns that the site had become unstable. Eighteen people are confirmed dead so far. And more than 140 people are still missing. One of the missing is a 21-year-old man named Ilan Naibryf. He didn't live in the building. He was supposed to go to a funeral last week. And so he was staying with his girlfriend.

CARLOS NAIBRYF: He disappeared in just seconds. He was there because there was a funeral on the day after.

KING: That's Ilan's dad, Carlos Naibryf. Ilan's parents are very proud of him. They're immigrants from Argentina. And they told us he's a brilliant student, a physics major at the University of Chicago and a great athlete. They also told us they're having a really hard time. This is dad, Carlos, and mom, Ronit Felszer.

NAIBRYF: It's very hard to digest - very hard, very hard. These are things that shouldn't happen.

RONIT FELSZER: Did we ever think that a building would just collapse? I mean, it's...

NAIBRYF: Insane.

KING: President Biden traveled to Surfside yesterday and spent a few hours with families that are grieving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I sat with one woman who had just lost her husband and her little baby boy - didn't know what to do. I sat with one other family that lost almost an entire family - cousins, brothers, sisters.

KING: NPR's Greg Allen has been covering the story in Miami. Good morning, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What was it like yesterday with the president there?

ALLEN: Well, the meetings with the families were closed to press. But the people who were there, including Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, say the families appreciated the time that he spent with them. The president went table to table talked to each family, you know, hearing their concerns and talking about the person they'd lost. Biden said they asked wrenching questions. One of them was, you know, would they be able to recover their loved ones for burial? It's a big one.

Biden was also welcomed by Florida's elected officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who's often been a harsh critic in the past. DeSantis thanked Biden for recognizing the severity of the tragedy from day one and helping cut through the bureaucracy. It was a rare bipartisan moment. And I think Biden appreciated it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The one thing that made me feel good about this is the cohesion that exists. There's no Democrat or Republican out there. They're just people want to do the right thing for their fellow Americans.

KING: And Greg, with time really being of the essence, why was the search and rescue shut down for 14 hours exactly?

ALLEN: Well, early Thursday morning, electronic monitors that had been set up signaled that the building appeared to be shifting. So they - you know, there was those concerns that the condo tower that's still standing could come down. So rescue crews were pulled off the site. Structural engineers say they later determined that it was mostly debris shifting both in the pile and on the building. So crews are back on the site dealing with the rubble. But they're doing so only in areas that are considered safe at this time.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says now they're looking at how best to demolish the standing building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: This is a decision that we need to make extremely carefully and methodically as we consider all the possible impacts to the pile of debris and to our search and rescue operation.

ALLEN: It'll be weeks, though, before a demolition plan will be in place.

KING: Yeah. A lot of logistics involved there, I'm sure. So in the meantime, Greg, NPR's been looking at a bunch of documents from the Champlain Towers condo association. What else have you guys found?

ALLEN: Well, you know, these condominium association documents show that they kept putting off for years the need to make repairs to this 40-year-old building, something that was - needed to be done to comply with county law. A new document shows that just in 2020, they were still fighting about it and saying - there was a memo from a building manager saying, complaining and shouting to each other just doesn't work. And they were just starting to work on that when the building collapsed last week.

KING: OK. NPR's Greg Allen in Miami - thanks Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "MOMENTARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.