‘I learned what it meant to be an American today’: Sights and sounds from Surfside, Fla.
Touring the condo collapse site offers a glimpse into the monumental rescue and recovery efforts underway
As the unmistakable and overwhelming stench of death permeates Collins Avenue in Surfside, Florida, the disappointment in the searchers’ eyes is also unmistakable.
While search and rescue crews have done everything they can, many signal disappointment at not being able to do more, with so many still missing in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South. These responders have seen, and smelled, terrible things and will now carry those indelible memories, perhaps better deemed scars on their minds.
I visited the collapse site on Day 12 of the search effort, guided by retired Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey, one of the foremost collapse-rescue experts in the American fire service. Chief Downey provided insight and analysis for the FireRescue1 community as we observed operations at the pile and beyond.
As I reflect on the experience, I will forever remember three things from my short time at the pile:
- The overwhelming stench of death;
- The solidarity and teamwork of crews from all over the world; and
- The pride in being an American – and an American firefighter.
AN UNIMAGINABLE EVENT
On June 23, many residents of the 12-story apartment building went to bed like it was any other ocean-side night. Reports indicate that just before 1:25 a.m., water dropped out of the pool, followed by a loud boom, then one-quarter of the building literally dropped in a pancake-style collapse.
Miami-Dade 911 received the call for a fire alarm sounding, but the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue arrived to find the Bravo and Charlie side portions of the J-shaped building partially collapsed. In the J, Bravo was the bottom of the J while the Charlie side was the short-oceanfront portion of the J. A twin to this building sits two buildings north of the collapsed property.
Firefighters arrived to find the collapse had taken out the elevators and stairwells. Early news helicopter video showed rescuers working in tenuous spaces at the parking garage level, where exposed columns presented the appearance of the ground having sunk in a large area, 10 feet or more. Except for a few ground-parking-level rescues, all immediate rescues that could be made were ladder rescues from balconies or windows. Complicating matters, since the initial collapse, near-daily rainfall and a difficult fire challenged firefighters’ attempts to dig through the layers in search of victims.
A MASSIVE RESPONSE
For the first time ever, all eight of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Teams were mobilized for 12-hour rotations to search for more than 150 unaccounted for occupants. At the time of this writing, the search has continued around the clock for 12 days, with the exception of a 15-hour pause on July 1 to stabilize a portion of the building, then another pause while the controlled demolition of the remaining structure was executed on July 4.
Additionally, international search and rescue teams offered assistance in Surfside. A team from Mexico has rotated in and back home, while a team from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was working the pile the day I was on site.
THE ANATOMY OF LAYERS AND A CHOREOGRAPHY OF EFFORT
I toured the site on July 5, observing the command post, a shift-change briefing, the perimeter of the pile through decon and rehab. Along the way, I interviewed Chief Downey, a long-time member of Florida Task Force 1. The depth and logistics of the response, not to mention the physical layers of the collapsed building, offer responders an unbelievable look at a massive structural collapse.
Immediately post-demolition of the Alpha side (bordering Collins Avenue), the entire pile had three distinct but contiguous colors:
- Brown: The B side of the initial collapse was essentially brown, having been the area burning during the first few days. Although not yet confirmed, this area was reportedly immediately above the building’s emergency generator, which, if validated, would seem to provide a reasonable explanation for the fire.
- Gray: The C side/ocean side where the secondary collapse had a dirty, weathered gray look, having been exposed to multiple days of downpours, wind and ocean spray.
- White: The final portion of the building – the A side along Collins Avenue – taken down in a controlled demolition was an almost white color, not weathered by any rainfall or extreme winds.
Searching and sifting the pile is like a dynamic and dangerous choreography of firefighters, heavy equipment operations, dogs, and unstable layers. “The picker,” the claw-like tool that sifts through areas, would work mere feet from rescuers, breaking up and pulling away big pieces so crews could jump right in to sift by hand.
Bucket-brigades, a term typically used in discussions fire service activity from decades past, were put into action on the pile. But these buckets were filled not filled with water, but rather with debris and occasional body parts. In addition to Task Force Team members, crews of firefighters who were not Task Force Team members were brought in to assist running the bucket brigade.
Firefighters are, generally speaking, accustomed to a fast pace of search, find, remove, repeat. On this particular pile, a fourth step was added out of respect for religious beliefs.
The Champlain Towers had a large Jewish population. The Jewish faith requests the dignified handling of victim remains that, dependent on scene circumstances, may require materials surrounding the victim be collected with the victim. As an example, this may mean a victim found on a mattress that would normally be removed as soon as they were uncovered, now remains in place until the mattress can be uncovered and recovered along with the body. Victims are then moved to the investigation area before transfer to the coroner, where a Rabbi visits to conduct their ceremonial blessing.
While certainly not a rescue protocol, teams are taking time to respect this tradition. We know that a recovery effort is less urgent than a rescue, but as we think about the physical and mental duress these firefighters are experiencing, it is still important to note that the observance of this tradition is not one firefighters are accustomed to. Not one firefighter I saw complained, but the strain of extra time “on target” was clearly on their minds.
One can imagine the challenge of providing food, housing, rehab, counseling, etc., for the dozens of teams working the rescue operation. While there’s no shortage of hotels along the Florida coastline, there aren’t many vacancies that could provide suitable housing for first responders.
Lodging arrangements had a unique twist, when in the second week of rescue efforts, a major cruise ship company offered a docked cruise ship as a housing option for responders. While some of the Task Force Teams chose to remain in nearby tent camping, arrangements have been made to house upwards of 500 responders on board the cruise ship. While the bars and casinos onboard are closed, of course, the ship provides a phenomenal opportunity for more than adequate sleeping, showering, feeding, rest, and meeting opportunities.
As for rehab, it’s clear that crews exert extreme effort when working the pile, making cool-down and hydration a must. Crews spend 45 minutes at a time working the pile, then rotating out for the next crew’s shift, then back on 45 minutes later. As members rotate out, their first destination is decon, an operation at the edge of the beach to cleanse all of the debris, including potential biologic matter in boots or gear. The rehab area on Day 12 was located in the shaded area of an adjacent building to the north.
Capt. Tony Trim from #MDFR #FLTF1 takes us on a walkthrough of the Champlain Towers collapse site in Surfside and areas that help task force teams carry out their operations. pic.twitter.com/6i1JHNqfoD— Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (@MiamiDadeFire) July 10, 2021
Something I certainly wouldn’t have considered as routine, but in Florida is a must-do, was a hard shelter for lightning protection. Fortunately, the day I toured, the weather cooperated until late afternoon. June and July are square in the middle of Florida’s rainy season, making the thunderstorms a near-certainty.
As for apparatus, while the actual number of fire engines on site was reduced to only two by Day 12, the need for fuel and mechanical support continues for the heavy equipment. A dilemma was looming as we spoke, with the need to find qualified heavy equipment operators. Just like the firefighters, these heavy equipment operators were working 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. The command staff couldn’t speak highly enough about the cooperation of the vendor with coordinating certified operators and working with the rotations to coincide with the overall shift change. Streamlining efforts, a robust communications plan provided for each crane/operator to have their own tac-channel, with a unified command post coordinating the overall effort.
PLANNING, BRIEFINGS & ACTION
I had the privilege to sit in on a shift-change planning meeting with Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky, Chief Downey, and both the incoming and outgoing shifts section chiefs. The teams conducted a thorough review and gave a situation report preparing the incoming shift for all of the planned activities and expectations.
Discussing everything from confirmation of the nine-grid-pile designation to the fuel-delivery schedule to a discussion of who was showing up and what they were told to bring, the briefings were just that – brief yet thorough. There was robust discussion about the grids, sides, divisions and levels, with relay of firefighters’ concern that they “cannot intelligently tell what floor we are on” when working the pile.
As should be expected, part of the planning process included a discussion about public information and the release of pictures and videos from unsecured sites – something that is nearly impossible to eliminate with elevated visual exposure from three sides. With the debate over who released this photo or that video, there’s an easy target on the backs of the crews on scene. As an industry, the fire service has repeatedly demonstrated our inability to control the flow of information. This is not an indictment of this incident, simply facts, and a discussion had within the planning meeting.
As the meeting came to a close, everyone was reminded that the body count is a law enforcement function – no matter how many bodies “we” pull from the pile, the official report comes from law enforcement.
CAUSE & INVESTIGATION
It will surely be a considerable time before the incident investigation can come to proven conclusions. While many theorized early about explosions and/or terrorist actions, the helicopter video of the site gave NO indication of explosive or energetic action from the site. Multiple news reports have cited faulty construction methods in reports and inspection documents. The local, state and federal regulatory agencies (many already on scene) will conduct the final analysis – that’s not our purview for the moment. As of this writing, it is not clear which agency will lead the investigation – and legal action is a certainty.
An interesting sight is the random sections of concrete marked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST has selected (and continues to select) various sections of concrete, which are marked and set to the side for pickup, to be used for extensive formal laboratory testing.
THE FAMILIES & THE VICTIMS
As of July 6, the death count stands at 36; however, that is likely to rise – significantly – as the days go on. Firefighters may know more have been removed, but it is important to recognize the official body count is a law enforcement function, allowing for proper coordination with the medical examiner and the notification of next of kin.
A memorial fence has been erected a block west of the building, allowing a controlled-access area for residents and family members to express their grief. The day I visited, the fence was lined with dying flowers, a nod to the sad reality unfolding one block away.
No one victim is any more important than any other, yet one of the more poignant recoveries was that of a 7-year-old girl, the daughter of a City of Miami firefighter. Even Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban was seen on the pile helping dig for the little girl.
Several people I spoke with at the scene described being able to hear a pin-drop for nearly an hour while they uncovered her, the emotion of the moment is difficult to avoid. Firefighters stood in solidarity and solitude, forming columns of honor as she was lowered from the pile – all in silence, no words spoken. And as quickly as they found her and removed her, the search resumed.
Later that day, the Israel Defense Force colonel on scene, on his observance of the solidarity of this moment commented to a flag-pin-wearing rescuer, “I learned what it meant to be an American today.” What a poignant testament to our firefighters and our service.
As for me, witnessing the solidarity and teamwork among members, and hearing the words of the colonel, I re-learned what it meant to be an American firefighter – and I am proud.