'Consoler-in-chief' Biden in Miami to comfort families of building collapse victims
US President Biden with Florida Gov. DeSantis (Screen Grab)

US President Joe Biden arrived in Florida on Thursday to offer comfort to the families of those killed and missing after last week's condominium collapse, as authorities suspended the search-and-rescue operation due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.

Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has been a hallmark of his political career, will reprise the role of "consoler-in-chief" a week after the 12-story building partially caved in as residents slept.

The confirmed death toll remains at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.

Workers were instructed to stop just after 2 am on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.

"The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so," Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing. Officials said they were unsure when workers would be able to resume.

Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.

"They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours," he said. "Eventually, we didn't hear her voice anymore."

Among those traveling with Biden on Thursday were U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the collapse site, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House homeland security adviser.

Biden, who arrived in Miami around 9:30 am, had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts. He has issued an emergency declaration and provided state and local officials with federal assistance.

FEMA, which has already deployed more than 60 staff to Florida, has activated five urban search-and-rescue teams - each comprised of 80 members - to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Thursday's trip is Biden's second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January.

In February, he traveled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.

Biden, a Democrat, will attend a briefing first with Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.

Afterwards, the president plans to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims' families to offer comfort. He is scheduled to deliver remarks on the tragedy shortly before 4 pm in Miami.

Biden's gift for connecting his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his public life, having endured the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son.

Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.

But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.

The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.

(REUTERS)