Ricardo Aizenman has been deployed to disaster zones around the world, but none so close to home as this. In recent days he has found himself trawling through the twisted metal, concrete and personal belongings of his neighbour’s homes at the site of a devastating building collapse in Surfside, Florida.
“It’s different,” he says, standing a few blocks away from the site with his two search dogs during a break between shifts.“I’m a neighbour of the area. In the morning I saw that it collapsed; the same day, a few hours later, we were here.”
Mr Aizenman is one of many among the hundreds of rescuers involved in the emergency effort here with some personal connection to the tragedy. Many searching through the wreckage count their own friends among the missing. For the firefighters, disaster response teams, police and volunteers involved in the rescue, the task is personal.
“Usually the places where we go, there are no families around. We just don’t know exactly the feeling of the society,” says Mr Aizenman, who works for a Florida-based humanitarian organisation called Cadena International. “In this case they are very close to the site and we know some of the people who are under the rubble and their family members, so it gets a little more complicated.”
This complication, the personal or community connection to the tragedy, has added yet another layer of difficulty to an already arduous rescue effort. Teams from around the country and the world have been working around the clock at the Champlain Towers – a large section of which collapsed in the early hours of Thursday – battling against a giant mound of debris, sweltering humidity, pouring rain and fires.
“You get soaked, you dry out, and you rinse and repeat,” says Julie Jones, with the state fire marshal’s office, explaining the conditions at the site.
More than 150 people remain unaccounted for as the fifth day of search efforts came to an end. One more victim was found amid the rubble on Monday, bringing the total number of confirmed dead so far to 11.
Among the victims named are family members who died together, and others who, by chance, were apart from their loved ones when tragedy struck. They were Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, Cuban emigres who were about to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary, and who died just hours after having dinner with their son.
Luis Bermudez, 26, and his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, also died together. In a note posted online, his father Luis Bermudez wrote: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything,” he wrote in black ink, “I will miss you all my life ... I will never leave you alone.”
Teams have been working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to search for more survivors. Throughout the day on Monday, large groups were seen moving back and forth from the site. As one group left, drenched in sweat from the humidity and wearing the signs of fatigue on their faces, another entered the fray.
The collapse of the condominium building has shaken the Surfside and Miami community. Families of the missing and residents of buildings nearby have called for an explanation as to why a building could suddenly collapse in the middle of the night.
“It’s less likely than a lightning strike,” Surfside mayor Charles Burkett told reporters in the aftermath. “It just doesn’t happen. You don’t see buildings falling down in America.”
Experts have warned it could be months before investigators discover the cause of the tragedy. Soon after the collapse it emerged that a 2018 engineer’s report warned of “major structural damage” to the building. Work to address those damages was just about to begin when it fell. Weather damage, salt air and poor maintenance are all likely to play a part in the investigation.
Surfside, and the greater Florida area, is no stranger to disasters such as hurricanes and extreme weather. But the nature of the site is different from what many of the rescuers have encountered here before.
“We normally deal with hurricanes – houses that are missing roofs and things of that nature are things that we’re used to, but definitely not a building collapse of this magnitude,” says Margarita Castro, a member of the Florida task force with Fema’s urban search and rescue division.
“It’s tonnes and tonnes of debris that is made up of concrete, rebar, glass, household furnishings, everything is just covered in concrete dust and it’s all in one big pile.”
It’s different, too, because of the density of the tragedy in such a small space. The condo building, just steps from the beach, housed an entire community under one roof, an array of residents from around the world, reflecting the diversity of the town.
“Hurricanes are a situation where a large group of people are affected. This is very intense emotionally because of its family units. It’s a close knit community, it’s very diverse,” says Ms Jones, with the fire marshal’s office, which is responsible for organising the logistics of this massive effort.
“They are on the mission of their lives. Every single person working on that pile has dedicated themselves to bringing someone out alive. So no they are not giving up, and they are not giving up until there is nothing left in the rubble.”
Meanwhile, families of the missing are enduring an agonising wait at a hotel a few minutes from the site. Those families were given a tour of the wreckage on Sunday afternoon to better understand the situation on the ground.
With so many missing, and so many families waiting for answers, rescuers have spent much of their time away from the search site consoling them and providing guidance.
“The job is emotional for us, but we’re not focusing on what that means for us, we’re here to be supportive for the families,” Ms Castro says. “That means some people are on the pile removing debris, while others are talking to the families offering emotional support and just talking to them and giving them information. We’re all on the same mission of just taking care of these families.”
As she speaks, a downpour of rain sweeps through Surfside and adds yet another obstacle to the rescuers working in the rubble. They are using an array of high-tech equipment to search for signs of life in the rubble. Infrared sensors scan where the eye cannot see to search for pockets where people may still be alive. Drones, cranes, sniffer dogs and human hands all work in tandem.
Hopes of finding anyone alive have dimmed significantly as the days have gone by, but none of the rescuers are close to giving up hope.
“The first 72 hours are the best window to find life. After that there are always miracles,” says Mr Aizenman. “We’ve found in places like Haiti people lying under the rubble with water. There’s a chance that there might still be people under the rubble, but the conditions are rough.”
“We don’t give up hope until we’ve found the last person,” he adds, before leaving to rest before his next shift on the pile.
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