President Joe Biden was on the ground in Surfside, Florida, Thursday following the devastating partial collapse of a beachside condominium building last week that has killed at least 18 people.
The president departed the White House early Thursday morning and met with local officials, thanking first responders engaged in the ongoing search efforts ahead of consoling families affected by the disaster and delivering remarks. First lady Jill Biden accompanied him for the visit.
In afternoon remarks, Biden said his message as he met with the families of the victims who are "going through hell" right now was "we're here for you as one nation."
As the days pass and hopes of finding more survivors among the rubble fade, the president said the families are "very realistic" about the outcome.
"They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminish slightly. But, at a minimum, at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies," he said.
Biden spent almost three hours Thursday speaking with the families -- saying he thought it was important "to speak to every single person who wanted to speak to me."
He said they asked "heart-wrenching questions" such as, "'Will I be able to recover the body of my son or daughter, my husband, my cousin, my mom and dad?'" and "'How can I have closure without being able to bury them if I don't get the body?'"
"I sat with one woman who had just lost her -- her husband and her little baby boy. Didn’t know what to do. I sat with another family that lost almost an entire family, cousins, brothers, sisters. And to watch them and -- they're praying and pleading that, God, let there be a miracle. Let there be something happen for me that's good."
Biden also praised the coordination between local, state and federal agencies on the ground and applauded first responders.
Asked if he learned anything further about the cause of the collapse, Biden said "we don’t have any firm proof of what happened" and that there’s "all kinds of rational speculation" about the building’s rebar being rusted and questions about the cement.
He said the families also raised the question of climate change playing a role in the collapse.
"There are all kinds of discussions about whether or not they thought that the water level rising, what impact it had. And interesting to me, I didn't raise it, but how many of the survivors and how many of the families talked about the impact of global warming... they didn’t know exactly, but they talked about sea levels rising."
At an earlier command briefing with local officials, seated next to Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Biden immediately made a big offer to cover the cost of the response effort.
"I think there’s more we can do, including, I think we have the power, and I’ll know shortly, to be able to pick up 100% of the cost to the county and the state," Biden said, eliciting a surprised reaction from Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who put her hand on Biden’s arm.
"I think the governor will you tell you, anything he asked for, he got," Biden said, ahead of DeSantis nodding in agreement.
Biden took a moment to turn to politics, noting the bipartisan display of cooperation.
"We're letting the nation know we can cooperate when it's really important," Biden said.
While meeting with a group of first responders, Biden was effusive with praise.
"I just want you to know that we understand," he told the responders. "What you’re doing now, is just hard as hell. Even psychologically. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."
He also invoked three personal stories to demonstrate the importance of first responders in his own life, referring to his experience having an aneurysm, describing his two sons being pulled out of the car crash that killed his first wife and daughter with the jaws of life and explaining that his home burned down after being struck by lightning.
"You saved my life. Literally, my fire department saved my life," he said.
Search and rescue efforts were paused Thursday morning due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure and the potential danger it poses to the crews. Structural engineers were on-site monitoring the situation as officials evaluated possible options and determined the next steps, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
"We're doing everything that we can to ensure that the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so," she said at a press conference.
During his remarks, Biden noted the pause and said it was important to determine whether it was safe for first responders to return to work.
"The last thing they would want and we would want is in the process of trying to recover -- and the possibility, there’s still a possibility someone could be alive, someone could still be breathing, someone could be there -- that the last thing you want to have happen is have that building collapse and kill 10, 20, 30, 50 firefighters, or wound them. Our first responders," he said.
Officials were unable to provide a timeline for when the urgent operation would resume.
Separately, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the visit had been closely coordinated with officials on the ground to ensure that it didn't divert any resources away from search and rescue operations.
"They want to thank the heroic first responders, search and rescue teams, and everyone who has been working tirelessly around the clock, and meet with the families who have been forced to endure this terrible tragedy waiting in anguish and heartbreak for word of their loved ones, to offer them comfort as search and rescue efforts continue. And they want to make sure that state and local officials have the resources and support they need under the emergency declaration," Psaki said earlier this week.
En route to Florida, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that local leaders urged the Bidens to visit Thursday, saying the time was right despite ongoing search and rescue efforts.
"The message that we've been given is very clear from the mayor's office, from the governor's office, from local officials, which is, they wanted us to come today, think now is the time to come, to offer up, offer up comfort and show unity from not just from him, but the country. And so this is why he and the first lady decided to come today, and he thought this was the right time to do it," Jean-Pierre said.
The collapse occurred around 1:15 a.m. local time last Thursday at the Champlain Towers South condominium in the small, beachside town of Surfside, about six miles north of Miami Beach. Approximately 55 of the oceanfront complex's 136 units were destroyed, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raide Jadallah. At least 145 residents are still unaccounted for.