By Alexandra Jaffe and Jonathan Lemire
President Joe Biden drew on his own experiences with grief and loss to comfort families affected by the Florida condo collapse, telling them to “never give up hope” even as the search for survivors paused early Thursday, a week after the building came down.
Addressing some of the families touched by the tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms as he offered his prayers and support in the private meeting.
“I just wish there was something I could do to ease the pain,” he said in a video posted on Instagram by Jacqueline Patoka, a woman who was close to a couple and their daughter who are still missing. .
Few public figures connect as powerfully on grief as Biden, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer. In the first months of his term, he has drawn on that empathy to console those who have lost loved ones, including the more than 600,000 who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a quiet voice freighted with emotion, Biden on Thursday described his own despair at having to wait to find out about how family fared after a crisis like the one experienced in Surfside. He spoke of wanting to switch places with a lost or missing loved one and lamented that “the waiting, the waiting, is unbearable.”
"The people you may have lost — they’re gonna be with you your whole life,” he told the families. “A part of your soul, a part of who you are.”
Biden told the families that it can be “harder to grieve in public than it is in private, so I know there's an extra burden on you all.”
“But I promise you: I still believe in prayer," he said. “You’re in my prayers."
The president, whose remarks were translated into Spanish, urged the families to “never give up hope,” even as the search and rescue operation paused early due to structural concerns with the remaining portion of the building.
Attendees could be seen with tears in their eyes as Biden closed out his remarks, and he and wife, Jill, spent the next few hours visiting privately with the families.
Biden, responding to what appeared to be the deadliest calamity of his young presidency, also met first responders hunting for survivors in the rubble in Surfside before the pause in the search.
The Bidens arrived in Florida a week after the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South beachfront condominium killed at least 18 people and left 145 missing. Hundreds of first responders and search-and-rescue personnel have been painstakingly searching the pancaked rubble for potential signs of life. No one has been rescued since the first hours after the collapse.
“This is life and death," Biden said at a briefing from officials about the collapse. “We can do it, just the simple act of everyone doing what needs to be done, makes a difference."
The president said he believed the federal government has “the power to pick up 100% of the cost” of the search and cleanup and urged local officials to turn to Washington for assistance.
“You all know it, because a lot of you have been through it as well," Biden said. "There’s gonna be a lot of pain and anxiety and suffering and even the need for psychological help in the days and months that follow. And so, we’re not going anywhere.”
Biden was briefed on the situation with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, as well as the state's two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. The mayor, a Democrat, saluted the efforts to cross party lines in an "unprecedented, devastating disaster” and said the unified government and community response “is what gives us hope.”
DeSantis, a rumored Republican 2024 presidential candidate, told Biden the “cooperation has been great," declaring that the administration has "not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy.”
As Biden pledged federal help and pointed to the bipartisan nature of the response, he touched DeSantis' hand to underscore the point.
“You know what’s good about this?” Biden asked. “It lets the nation know we can cooperate. That’s really important."
Biden then met first responders who worked around the clock on a rescue effort that has stretched into its second week in oppressive heat and humidity and frequent summer storms.
“What you’re doing here is incredible, having to deal with the uncertainty," said Biden, as he offered profuse thanks to those who have been working at the site.
Biden has received regular updates on the building collapse. He also sent FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to the area for a tour of the site earlier this week with DeSantis.
And early Thursday, the White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed 60 staff members and an additional 400 personnel across five search and rescue teams at the request of local officials. FEMA also awarded $20 million to the state’s Division of Emergency Management to help deal with unexpected emergency measures surrounding the collapse.
Biden's day was spent entirely in a hotel about a mile north of the building site. The White House emphasized that it was being careful to coordinate with officials on the ground to ensure that Biden’s visit didn't do anything to distract from the search and rescue effort.
Still, not everyone welcomed Biden’s visit.
“I think it was a terrible idea for Biden to come," said Soriya Cohen, whose husband, Dr. Brad Cohen, and his brother are missing. “I am sure he wanted to see it firsthand. I am sure he had pure intentions but it’s a very, very congested road.”
She expressed concern that Biden's visit had "the attention taken away” from those still trapped in the rubble.
Biden has supported an investigation into the cause of the collapse. On Wednesday the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which sent a team of scientists and engineers to the site, launched an investigation.
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed reporting. Lemire reported from New York.
Updated on July 1, 2021, at 3:35 p.m. ET with the latest details.