Biden visits Surfside, Fla., families: 'We're here for you'

One week after the deadly collapse of a beachfront condo in Surfside, Fla., President Biden traveled to the tight-knit community just north of Miami to offer comfort and support to the families of the victims, first responders and state and local officials still hoping for survivors to be pulled out of the rubble.

"The whole nation is mourning with these families,” Biden said at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, about a mile north of the site of the building collapse. "They see it every day on television. They're going through hell, those who survived the collapse, as well as those missing loved ones."

The president and first lady Jill Biden spent nearly three hours meeting privately with friends and family members grieving for lost and missing loved ones.

"They're such incredible people," Biden said. "I sat with one woman who had just lost her husband and little baby boy, didn't know what to do. And I sat with another family that lost almost an entire family: cousins, brothers, sisters. And to watch them, they're praying, they're pleading, 'God, let there be a miracle.'"

President Biden looks solemn after meeting with families of victims in the Surfside, Fla., building collapse on Thursday.
President Biden after meeting with families of victims in the Surfside, Fla., building collapse on Thursday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, Biden said that the families of the missing are "realistic," and that they know the chances of survival are dwindling by the hour.

"They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly," he said. "But at a minimum, at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies.”

The president said the families had "basic, heart-wrenching questions" about closure.

"Will I be able to recover the body of my son or daughter or my husband or my cousin, my mom and dad?" Biden said. "How can I have closure without being able to bury them?"

"Jill and I want them to know that we're with them and the country's with them," he added. "Our message today is that we're here for you as one nation."

Biden did not visit the site of the partially collapsed building itself. Hours before he arrived in South Florida, search and rescue efforts were temporarily halted over fears that the other half of the building might come down.

No survivors have been pulled from the rubble since last Thursday, when 37 people were taken out alive in the hours after the building collapsed. One of them later died at the hospital.

On Wednesday, the bodies of two children, ages 10 and 4, were found at the site, bringing the confirmed death toll to 18. The number of people unaccounted for stands at 145.

More than 300 emergency personnel — including teams from Israel, Mexico and the Army Corps of Engineers — have been working around the clock on the pile of twisted metal and concrete. Rescue crews have been using light equipment to search the pile, including shovels and buckets, as well as specially trained dogs and sonar equipment.

Before meeting family members, the president spoke with about 50 first responders.

“What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with,” Biden told them. “I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

President Biden meets with first responders who were working on the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside, Fla., Thursday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Biden meets with first responders who were working on the condo tower. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Earlier, he was briefed by state and local officials, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, on the search and rescue operation.

Last week, the president authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid in the recovery efforts.

"We're not going anywhere," Biden said Thursday. "Anything you ask for, we've got it."

He added: "We just want to make sure you get whatever you need."

DeSantis thanked Biden for his leadership and prompt action.

"You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one," DeSantis said. "You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, but we've had no bureaucracy."

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, left, and President Biden attend a briefing Thursday with first responders and local officials on the response to the building collapse in Surfside, Fla.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Biden attend a briefing Thursday with first responders and local officials. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Republican governor is an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump and has been a vocal critic of the current Democratic president.

Biden said it was important to put partisan politics aside and come together in the face of tragedy.

“We're letting the nation know we can cooperate when it's really important,” he said, reaching out to touch the governor’s hand. “This is life and death.”

The president has embraced the role of “consoler in chief,” often openly discussing his own handling of grief in the course of his public speaking.

In 2015, Biden’s eldest son, Beau, died of a brain tumor, an experience he has spoken about often.

Shortly after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, Biden lost his wife and young daughter in a car crash. His sons, Beau and Hunter, survived.

The president referred to this tragic accident while talking about the families in Surfside on Thursday.

“It’s bad enough to lose somebody," Biden said. "But the hard part, the really hard part, is to not know whether they’re surviving or not. Just to not have any idea. When the accident took my wife and my [daughter], the hardest part was, were my boys going to get out, could they make it? And not knowing, not knowing, when you're flying home from Washington to get the news. You just don’t know."

A view of the partially collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
A view of the partially collapsed building. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Christopher Wilson contributed reporting to this story.

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