As dawn broke Thursday, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue crews searching an unstable two-story high pile of concrete rubble and twisted, jagged steel pulled out a young boy and his mother from the ruins of Champlain Towers South condominium.
It was an early and potentially promising sign in the horrific collapse, but even that moment came with anguish. The woman’s leg had to be amputated to extricate her from the ruins.
While crews would be working through the night, the rest of the day proved grim. A voice was heard buried somewhere — at first work crews thought it was a child, then a woman. But contact was lost. The outlook continued to spiral downward later in the day when Jackson Memorial Hospital emergency care workers awaiting the injured reported only two victims being treated.
Not long after that, Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez said as many as 99 people who might have been inside the building when it crumbled were still not accounted for.
“It was bad,” said Frank Rollason, a former member of Miami-Dade’s Urban Search and Rescue team and current director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County. Rollason was there through much of the morning and described the first successful rescue and the frustration of hearing another survivor but not immediately reaching her.
As sundown approached Thursday, more than 16 hours after part of the 12-story Surfside condo pancaked in a heap, rescuers continued their desperate but cautious search through the shifting tons of refuse in the hope of finding and saving the woman whose voice they heard earlier. And though each passing hour made her survival less likely, they vowed not to give up the search even as dark began to ascend.
“The operations will continue through the night,” said Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Ray Jadallah.
The disaster was a daunting test for Miami-Dade’s vaunted Urban Search and Rescue personnel, which has responded to many far-flung catastrophes from the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 to earthquakes in Haiti and around the globe. The collapse of a third of the high-rise at 8777 Collins Ave. , with fallen floors stacked like pancakes, was a difficult as they come.
Though it was much too early Thursday to estimate a death toll, there were strong hints that the official number given — one — was likely to climb and possibly dramatically. Along with so few injured people showing up at the hospital, clues included video of the sudden violent pancaking of the structure and senior fire rescue officials explaining how the tons of debris was so stacked together at the top of the heap that they had to move their search to passageways in the garage under the building.
“There’s a lot less chance of survival with that type of collapse,” said Pete Gomez, a retired assistant Miami fire chief who ran the city’s emergency operations center for six years and is now the senior director at the Academy for International Disaster Preparedness. “But our job is to try and save as many lives as possible.”
It’s also not likely that rescuers will be able to identify any of the missing, at least quickly. The devastation at Champlain Towers — where residents’ personal property was visible inside apartments where the wall had fallen off — was much worse than the collapse of the pedestrian bridge over Southwest Eighth Street at Florida International University in 2018. And after that collapse, it took police and the county medical examiner’s office three days before they were able to publicly identify the six people who were killed.
No resources were spared in Thursday’s search and recovery effort.
Jadallah said more than 80 units from several different agencies responded shortly after the building crumbled around 1:23 a.m. The Urban Search and Rescue Team scrambled, deploying K-9s and using sonar and sensitive cameras and microphones in the search for life.
Some of the equipment is so sensitive, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokeswoman Maggie Castro, that “we would even be able to hear people scratching.”
Video circulating through social media of the building’s collapse shows the utter devastation of, at first, its center suddenly pancaking, then the tower next to it crashing quickly down with a lack of support as dust and debris envelop the property. City leaders said the building, constructed in 1981, was preparing to undergo a mandatory 40-year inspection.
Jadallah said the first job of rescuers was to evacuate and save who they could. By 6 a.m., after dozens were helped from apartments that still stood or helped to the ground on cherry pickers, the search moved to under the massive piles of rubble. But searchers, unable to find pockets to drop equipment, soon shifted to an underground parking lot where they found more corridors from which to work.
“When we make a cut, there’s a shift with additional boulders,” Jadallah said, explaining the difficulty of the task.
At one point as workers tried to cut through the debris, it sparked a small fire that was put out within 20 minutes, he said. Into the evening, Jadallah said 60 to 70 firefighters worked in addition to search and rescue workers. He said they would continue through the night and a fresh crew would come in the morning.
“The process is slow and methodical,” he said.
Gomez said the team’s search for life is likely to be hampered by a host of issues, like potential gas leaks that could spark more fires. Gomez said if the condo was fed by any type of gas, the lines are likely severed and leaking. And, he said, the damaged cars on the ground level could be leaking fuel.
“So, a little spark could cause a fire. The vapors coming from the cars could be flammable,” he said. Large fans seen around the search party were there to bring in fresh air and possibly rid the air of toxins, Gomez said. He also said the actual removal of the rubble was labor intensive and that rescuers at some point will have to get on their hands and knees and remove one concrete chunk at a time.
Still, Gomez said he saw no reason why rescuers wouldn’t be able to save people even a few days down the road. He recalled the story of Ena Zizi, a woman in her 70s who was pulled and saved from the rubble a week after Haiti’s 7.0 earthquake. She had a fractured right femur.
“You can have an extended period of time with survivors. It might not look good. But if you’re able to save one person from this whole catastrophe...” Gomez said, his voice trailing off.