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Search Crews Are Nearly Done Recovering Victims' Bodies From Surfside Condo Rubble

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., the search for victims in the rubble of the collapsed condominium is coming to an end. Search crews have recovered 97 bodies so far.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the three weeks since the Champlain Towers South crumbled in the middle of the night, the number of presumed victims has constantly shifted. And now that recovery efforts are wrapping up, officials have a better sense of how many lives were lost. We're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido in Miami.

Hey, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm remembering, in the first few days after this tragedy, word was that officials were searching for as many as 159 people. Where does that number stand now?

FLORIDO: Well, thankfully, it is significantly lower. Officials now think the final number of dead is going to be somewhere between 96 and 99 people. And in the last day or so, they've continued digging through the rubble, expecting to find the last few bodies, if there are any left at all. The reason this number has gone down a lot from that initial estimate of 159 and the reason it's still a little uncertain is that each day, officials have been refining their list of people thought to have been in the building. Now, early on, there was a lot of confusion - you know, duplicate missing persons reports that had been filed, people reported missing who it turned out, you know, weren't in the building at all.

KELLY: The bodies that have been recovered - have they all been identified?

FLORIDO: No. Most of them have, but officials are still working to ID some of them. And, you know, it's been three weeks since this collapse. It's hot here in Miami. It's rainy. The bodies recovered in the last few days can no longer be identified visually. Here's what Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said about this yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: At this step in the recovery process, we're relying heavily on the work of the medical examiner's office. It's a scientific process to identify human remains. As we've said, this work is becoming more difficult with the passage of time. And although our teams are working as hard as they can, it takes time.

FLORIDO: Officials haven't said when this recovery portion will officially end. But one sign that it is very close to wrapping up is that officials have ended their daily press briefings, which we've had for the last three weeks.

KELLY: When this phase does wrap up, there will be even more attention on figuring out what caused this building to collapse. Do we know much more?

FLORIDO: Not really because until now, the focus has been on the rescue and now the recovery. And what officials are saying is that the investigation is going to be very complex, that it's going to take time, possibly a long time. We know from reporting that there were serious structural problems in this building. And now engineers are planning to get in there and start testing the ground beneath the building, looking for other clues. The 20 million pounds or so of debris that's been removed from this site - it's being taken to a secure location, where investigators are treating it like crime scene evidence, looking for clues.

KELLY: Once they finish looking for clues, once investigators have gotten everything they need, what's going to happen to that site?

FLORIDO: We don't know yet, but officials say that they have started talking about that. We also know that, you know, already there are competing visions for that site. A lot of people want to see it turned into a memorial, and the mayor has said there should be a memorial there. There are also questions about whether the property will have to be sold to cover claims from lawsuits. And finally, we know that some of the families that lived in the part of the building that did not collapse but that was later demolished - they've told officials that they want to move back there. They want to rebuild. And officials say that that is also a possibility.

KELLY: NPR's Adrian Florido reporting from Miami.

Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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