Therapy dogs for first responders and teams flown in from Israel: Inside the Miami condo recovery operation

‘These big heroes at the Surfside condo were crumbling, showing all their emotions to a little dog’

Masada Siegel
Thursday 08 July 2021 18:16 BST
(Hadas Rucham)

Orit Schloss, who lives in Champlain Tower East, was finishing up a late-night email when she heard a noise that sounded like a thunderstorm clap. After a few moments, she realized it didn’t sound like a typical Miami summer storm, and it wasn’t raining. Yet, that breezy Florida night, it was late, exhaustion set in and she went to sleep around 1:30 in the morning.

About an hour later her phone lit up, and she saw a happy birthday text appear: it was June 24th, her 65th birthday. She fell back asleep, only to be woken up again by her phone ringing. She thought, “Wow, someone overseas has mixed up the time and is calling to wish me a happy birthday in the middle of the night.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. At the end of the phone was her friend, screaming and crying. As Schloss picked up, her friend yelled, “Oh my God, you are alive! Is everything OK? What building exactly do you live in?”

Schloss responded, “Champlain East.”

Her friend explained that she wasn’t sure as she heard news reports that the Champlain building on 88th Street collapsed, when It was actually Champlain South, which is one building away from where Schloss lives.

Schloss then got a call from her daughter who said, “You need to run out of your building.”

She tried to call security and the phone did not work, nor did the lights in her building. That is when she looked out the window and saw the catastrophe down below. The area was filled with debris, ambulances, firefighters and emergency personnel.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Hadas Rucham, Head of Operations at the Psycho-Trauma unit of United Hatzalah, an Israeli volunteer emergency organization that provides free emergency medical care, heard the news from Florida: “When we heard the building collapsed on Thursday, we started to think about sending a delegation. And then the Jewish Federation and the Jewish community called us and asked for our help.”

Experienced with trauma and helping people cope with tragedies, Rucham spoke with me from Israel on the phone about how her team started to ready themselves to travel to the US to assist.

Meanwhile, Florida’s first responders were already at the scene, and Schloss could see them feverishly working away out of her home window. “The firefighters and the first responders have been working so tirelessly and have been so dedicated,” she told me. “In those first moments and days, they were searching through the rubble so carefully with their hands, digging through the mountain of debris, standing shoulder-to-shoulder helping one another. Meanwhile, we watched and prayed for their success, hoping for a miracle and that they would be able to find people alive.”

Floridians such as Davie resident, Einat Cohen Nissan, knew she had to help in any way she could. On a WhatsApp group called “Yedidim” she saw a call for volunteers to help cook for survivors, family members and first responders. She answered the call and on Friday, June 25th they drove down to join the group at the Surf-N-Sides restaurant, where volunteers were arriving, food was being donated and chefs were leading the charge creating and preparing food.

“I walked around the dining area and tried to serve food to the families who were waiting for news of their loved ones,” she said. “Many didn’t want to eat, so I spoke with a few, trying to help them with their anxiety and alleviate their fears. One couple was sitting together — they had just met. Her brother was in the building, as was his son. They were trying to comfort one another. It was a heartbreaking scene.”

Later that weekend, on Sunday morning, June 27th, Rucham and her team of therapists arrived from Israel. Soon after they landed in the US, they headed to the hotel where people from the Surfside Condo had been evacuated to and started working with families of the missing, survivors and first responders: “It was five days that we worked through, hearing tragic stories from the families about their loved ones, getting to know them and supporting them through this emotional rollercoaster.”

“Their emotions were constantly between hope and despair and our working alongside the Israeli Defense Forces rescue team was helpful. We did not come together, but we collaborated with one another,” Rucham explained. “This was especially helpful as when you approach the families to help them, most don’t want to talk to anyone. They are just looking for information about their loved ones who are missing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t give it to them; however, what we were able to do was gather information about their family members, personal details, ways of identification, so we could give the information to the rescue teams. When they sat with us and gave us all the details about their siblings, parents, kids, that was a way they felt they were helping the rescue mission — it was a way that they didn’t feel so helpless and hopeless. We were able to gain people’s trust and were then able to provide emotional support.”

The Surfside Condo collapse scene has been constantly filled with families searching for information of their loved ones, first responders, and volunteers. Schloss has been glued to the horrific scene which is unfolding just outside of her third-floor window. Even now, two weeks after the building collapsed, her voice quivers when she speaks of it: “To realize that even your home is not as safe as you think — it’s a terrible loss right in my back yard. It could happen to me. I think a lot of those people who lost their lives in the situation [and the fact] that they were not able to help themselves.”

Rucham expressed similar sentiments. “Being on the scene was very difficult. It was tragic to see it and on those ruins, you could see the memories, too, that collapsed for the people there… It was a scene full of emotions.”

And yet, in every disaster, sometimes there are tiny moments where sparks of goodness appear.

“This tragedy brought this entire community together, working, volunteering, people wanting to donate, to save lives,” Schloss told me. “The atmosphere is one where everyone wants to help, everyone feels that something like this shouldn’t happen.”

And the emotional toll that tirelessly working on a scene like this has had on first responders is evident.

“Our team had a therapy dog and she did a lot of hard work with the first responders on the site, at the hotel, the community center and on the streets. Thinking of all those big heroes, sturdy men, and to see them crumbling, showing all their emotions to a little dog, it was inspiring,” Rucham said. “One fireman was patting her and playing with her on the street and after five minutes with her, he whispered in her ear, ‘Thank you for making my day.’ These rescue workers are working hour after hour, and it was so touching to see him that grateful.”

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