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Biden consoles families and survivors of Surfside condo building collapse

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Biden says "whole nation is mourning" with families of the victims of Florida building collapse 14:15

President Biden paid a visit to Surfside, Florida, a week after a towering condo building in the town came crashing down. Eighteen people are confirmed dead in the tragedy and more than 140 are unaccounted for. 

The president, along with home-state Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, met with families of the victims for about three hours, staying to speak with every family member who wanted to meet him. The president and first lady also visited a makeshift memorial site by the condo, reading homemade signs and gazing at photos.

In brief remarks the president said federal government and state and local authorities are doing everything they can. 

President Joe Biden greets first responders to the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, during a meeting with them in Miami Beach on July 1, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

"All those folks are risking their lives to save lives, but also holding out hope that those will be found. Hope springs eternal," the president said. 

Mr. Biden told reporters he had sat with a woman who lost her husband and baby boy in the disaster, and with a family that lost nearly everyone — cousins, brothers and sisters. The president, who has survived the loss of his own first wife, daughter, and grown son, related to their grief. 

"They're praying and pleading, that God, let there be a miracle. Let there be something happen with me that's good. Because I have like many of you do, some idea what it's like to suffer that kind of loss that so many of them are suffering," the president said. 

CBS News talked to families, first responders and others who are living through the tragedy for a 30-minute special, "Surfside Collapse: A Search for Answers," anchored by CBS News Correspondent Manuel Bojorquez. Watch it in the player below.

"Surfside Collapse: A Search for Answers" 27:19

Answering questions from reporters, Mr. Biden said the families are also "realistic" about any rescue efforts at this point, over a week after the building's collapse. Officials took family members to see the site.

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

The most difficult part, the president said, is not knowing whether their loved ones survived.

"When the accident took my wife, my family, the hardest part was — were my boys going to get out? Were they going to make it? And not knowing," the president said, recalling his own reaction to the accident that had claimed the lives of his first wife and daughter. 

When they arrived in Florida, Mr. Biden and Jill received a command briefing from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and other officials. 

"We're letting the nation know we can cooperate," Mr. Biden said, as DeSantis, a prominent ally of former President Trump, nodded his head. "When it's really important, it's really important. ... This is life and death."

The president said he believes the federal government can pick up the costs related to the disaster for the first 30 days.

Mr. Biden and the first lady also met with first responders, thanking them for their work. And he acknowledged the added stress on firefighters as wildfires and droughts plague the West. 

"What you're doing is incredible," he said.

Work at the site of the condo building collapse was halted early Thursday because of concerns about the part of the structure that is still standing, officials announced at a press conference. Operations halted shortly after 2 a.m. 

Residents who escaped the collapse are sharing chilling stories.

Raysa Rodriguez left a voicemail on her brother's phone as she made her way out of the building. "Anybody over there? Hello?" she said. "Oh my God! What the hell? The whole entire building is gone!"

Iliana Monteagudo said a loud noise woke her from her sleep. She started to run after she saw a crack snaking down her living room wall. "I start going down fast and I hear a crack, crack, crack," she said.

Her neighbor, Sara Nir, lived on the ground floor and went outside when she heard a loud bang. That's when she saw the building's underground garage collapse.

"We ran out of the building," she said. "And then another big boom. Then we didn't see anything. It was suddenly quiet after the big boom and with white clouds all over." 

Officials on Wednesday announced that the bodies of two children were found in the rubble. They were sisters, 4 and 10 years old. 

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