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Search for bodies concludes at Florida condo collapse site

FILE - In this July 15, 2021 file photo, an excavator clears rubble at the site of the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse and demolition in Surfside, Fla. Firefighters have officially ended their search for bodies in the debris of the collapsed Surfside condo building, Friday, July 23. But police and forensic specialists continue working to identify human remains recovered from the disaster. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

MIAMI (AP) — Firefighters on today declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed Florida condo building, concluding a month of painstaking work removing layers of dangerous debris that were once piled several stories high.

The June 24 collapse at the oceanside tower killed 97 people, with at least one more missing person yet to be identified. The site has been mostly swept flat and the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.

Except during the early hours after the collapse, survivors never emerged. Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. They went through more than 14,000 tons (13,000 metric tonnes) of broken concrete and rebar, often working boulder by bounder, rock by rock, before finally declaring the mission complete.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the disaster site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles, slowly driving to their headquarters for a news conference to announce that the search was officially over.

At a ceremony, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky saluted the firefighters who worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site.

“It’s obviously devastating. It’s obviously a difficult situation across the board,” Cominsky said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women that represent Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.”

Officials have declined to clarify whether they have one additional set of human remains in hand that pathologists are struggling to identify or whether a search for that final set of remains continues.

If found, Estelle Hedaya would bring the death toll to 98.

Hedaya was an outgoing 54-year-old who loved to travel and was fond of striking up conversations with strangers. Her younger brother Ikey has given DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the search efforts for himself.

“As we enter month two alone, without any other families, we feel helpless,” he told The Associated Press on Friday. He said he gets frequent updates from the medical examiner’s office.

Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, is worried that she will be forgotten.

“They seem to be packing up and congratulating everyone on a job well done. And yes, they deserve all the accolades, but after they find Estelle.”

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