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‘Message in the mess’: Family holds onto hope as Florida search continues

She had loved living near the ocean and friends, but “when you lose a spouse, you want to be surrounded by family … and she wanted to spend more time with her family and grandchildren,” said Sally Noriega, Hilda’s daughter-in-law.

Sally called Hilda a sweet, loving person who built a life with her husband and raised a family after coming to the US from Cuba in 1960.

A Florida rescue team searches for survivors amid the rubble.

A Florida rescue team searches for survivors amid the rubble. Credit:AP

“She was just one of those people who from the first time she met a person she instantly loved that person, and that person instantly loved her,” Sally said.

Carlos Noriega, Hilda’s son and police chief of nearby North Bay Village, was one of the emergency responders clambering atop the pile.

The Noriegas don’t entirely know what to make of the treasured mementos found amid the chaos, but Sally said: “We are a family of faith. We’ll just leave it at that.”

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They are among dozens of anguished families awaiting word on the fate of loved ones. The wait has been agonising.

The atmosphere inside a hotel ballroom where around 200 family members were being briefed by authorities on Saturday (Florida time) was tense, two people present told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

The two said families frustrated with the slow pace of recovery efforts had demanded they be allowed to go to the scene and attempt a collective shout — an attempt as much to find survivors as a cathartic farewell to those who had died.

The confirmed death toll rose to five on Saturday as rescuers battled fire and smoke deep inside the heap in a race against time. With a sulphur-like stench hanging in the air, they used everything from trained dogs and sonar equipment to buckets and drones.

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“Our top priority continues to be search-and-rescue and saving any lives that we can,” Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

The mayor said the identification of three bodies had dropped the number of people unaccounted for down to 156, and crews also discovered other unspecified human remains. The remains are being sent to the medical examiner, and authorities are gathering DNA samples from family members to aid in identification.

A video posted online showed an official briefing families. When he said they had found remains among the rubble, people began sobbing.

Late Saturday, four of the victims were identified, as Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54.

Also late Saturday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said a city official had led a cursory review of the nearby Champlain Towers North and Champlain Towers East buildings but “didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.”

The news came after word of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building, which was built in 1981, had “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below its pool deck that needed extensive repairs, part of a series of documents released by the city of Surfside.

While officials said no cause for the collapse early on Thursday has been determined, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said a “definitive answer” was needed in a timely manner.

AP

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