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Surfside Officials Say Their Goal Is Now To Bring Closure To The Families Of Victims

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., the focus at the site of the condominium collapse is now on recovering the remains of victims. Officials called off the search for survivors earlier this week. Today, they announced they found 15 more bodies for a total of 79. For workers at the site, it's a grisly and heartbreaking task, but one that officials say won't stop until all the bodies and all the human remains are returned to their families. NPR's Adrian Florido reports. And a note that this story contains details about the recovery efforts that some listeners may find upsetting.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: In the days since they called off the rescue operation, officials in Surfside have stressed their main goal now is to bring closure to families still missing loved ones in the rubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: We are working around the clock to recover victims and to bring closure to the families as fast as we possibly can.

FLORIDO: Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said recovering all the remains could take weeks. Freddy Ramirez, the director of the Miami-Dade Police, whose detectives are overseeing the recovery of remains, said that's because it is meticulous, painstaking work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDDY RAMIREZ: Every bit of our family members count and matter, and we take every effort, every possible means to ensure that we recover family members and return them to their families.

FLORIDO: One of the questions lingering over the recovery effort and haunting families of the missing is whether or in what state all of the missing will be found.

CHIP COLWELL: It takes a very intentional process to be able to recover as much of those human remains as possible.

FLORIDO: Chip Colwell is an archaeologist who has researched the recovery of victims from the site of the World Trade Center collapse in New York and the impact of that process on victims' families.

COLWELL: When you have a catastrophic collapse of a building, the victims become inextricably bound up in a lot of the construction material, and it's very difficult to untangle, you know, human remains from the building wire and the concrete.

FLORIDO: After the September 11 attacks, many families never recovered any remains of those they lost. While the magnitude of that collapse was far greater than the one in Surfside, Colwell says officials also made mistakes in New York that resulted in a lot of human remains being discarded.

COLWELL: Not to even have a tiny piece of your loved one, something that you could bury, something that could confirm that your loved one was there, that was truly haunting for so many of these families.

FLORIDO: That is an outcome officials in Surfside seem determined to avoid. The town's mayor, Charles Burkett, said he believes lessons from the World Trade Center recovery effort are being applied at the Champlain Towers. Rabbi Shalom Lipskar leads the Shul, a Surfside synagogue that lost several of its members in the collapse. He's been to the rubble pile several times and said he and other religious leaders in town have advised officials on how critical it is to recover all that they can.

SHOLOM LIPSKAR: To such a degree, if you notice, all the trucks that are leaving the location are being escorted by police escort. And they go to a locked area with all the debris, and every part of that debris is going to be sifted because any part of a human being should be buried with honor.

FLORIDO: In the Jewish tradition, he said, as in almost every human culture, being able to mourn over the dead is a critical part of the grieving process. He said, for the Surfside families still waiting for their loved ones to be found, that grieving process is on hold.

LIPSKAR: You cannot console these people because there's no closure. So there's no consolation in saying, I'm sorry for someone who passed away, for example, because there's still that glimmer of hope. And you have no right to be able to extinguish that.

FLORIDO: Families have to get there on their own, he said, and getting their loved ones back is a first step.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Surfside, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELIKSKI'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.