'She screamed and the line went dead': Families search for answers as 159 still missing in Miami building collapse

Ashley Dean kneels on the white sand of Surfside beach and lets out an almighty wail, picking up a piece of seaweed and putting it in her handbag. "I'll take this home," she says, "I'll keep this." It

'She screamed and the line went dead': Families search for answers as 159 still missing in Miami building collapse

Ashley Dean kneels on the white sand of Surfside beach and lets out an almighty wail, picking up a piece of seaweed and putting it in her handbag.

"I'll take this home," she says, "I'll keep this."

It is her way of remaining close to the little sister she fears is gone forever.

Barely 100m from the spot where Ashley is pressing her hands urgently into the sand is a pile of cement and twisted metal 30m (100ft) tall.

It is the remains of the building which had been home to her sister Cassie Stratton.

Before and after images show how a huge part of the residential building has now been reduced to pile and bricks and concrete
Image: Before and after images show how a huge part of the residential building has now been reduced to pile and bricks and concrete

On Thursday morning at around 1.30am, Cassie was standing on the balcony of her apartment on the fourth floor of Champlain Towers South overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

She was speaking on the phone with her husband Michael Stratton.

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"Suddenly she says, 'honey the pool is caving in, the pool is sinking to the ground'," Ashley recounts.

"He said 'what are you talking about?' And she says, 'the ground is shaking, everything's shaking' and then she screamed a blood curdling scream and the line went dead."

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'She screamed a death-curdling scream'

"We've never been able to see her again," Ashley adds, her voice growing desperate as she gestures to the wreckage beyond the palm trees "because she's in there, she's trapped in there".

Like many friends and family of the 159 people still unaccounted for, Ashley's hope that survivors will be found in the debris is fading.

"I have to be realistic; my baby is gone, my baby sister is gone."

Anger is also simmering beneath the surface.

"My sister told me about all kinds of water leaks and people on her roof with heavy equipment," Ashley says.

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Moment apartment block collapses near Miami
rescue efforts are on going
Image: Rescue efforts to find the 159 people still unaccounted for are ongoing

"I want to know how this could happen and who is responsible? She was living in a dream place but it was a death trap."

Pictures of many of the missing people are pinned to a wall near the collapse site, lit by candles placed on the pavement below.

There are toddlers, teenagers and retirees of all races and religions, reflecting the international community in the building.

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Boy rescued from rubble of Miami building

Miami's Jewish community has been hit particularly hard.

Rachel Spiegel's mother Judy, a close friend of holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, was in the building at the time of its collapse and is still missing. Judy's husband Kevin was away on a business trip in California.

"She's a wonderful person and my favourite person," Rachel says.

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Desperate husband searches for wife

"The last time I spoke to her she said she'd bought a dress for my daughter. It's still in the post. I want her to be able to give it to her."

The smell of acrid smoke hangs heavy in the air even half a mile from the collapse site.

Heavy rain and winds have been hampering rescue efforts with concerns raised about the stability of what remains of the building.

The recovery operation here is complex and is likely to take weeks. The search for answers and accountability will stretch far beyond that.