Rubble, Narrow Voids, Storms: The Dangerous Rescue Effort in Miami

The death toll rose to 11 as search-and-rescue teams continued to sort through pulverized steel and dig through concrete boulders.

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SURFSIDE, Fla. — Atop the grim pile of detritus and broken concrete on Monday, some of the world’s most elite rescue crews tunneled and dug, sometimes with their hands, in hopes of finding hints of the living. As the afternoon dragged on, it appeared their hopes would be dashed for another day.

But on occasion, the workers would pause, and bend down, and collect what amounted to small, fragile consolation prizes: the personal photos from the residents of the Champlain Towers South, a building that less than a week ago had been alive with a typically South Florida assemblage of families, grandparents and retirees.

Monday was the fifth day of the extensive search-and-rescue effort, and the possibility of finding alive any of the 150 people believed to be missing dwindled further. The pictures, and a few other personal effects that somehow managed to survive the collapse, were at least something.

“There’s not a lot,” said Maggie Castro, a firefighter and paramedic for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and a rescue specialist for Florida Task Force 1, one of the elite urban search-and-rescue teams that have been working on the rubble pile since Friday.

Ms. Castro said most everything inside the building was destroyed when a significant portion shuddered and collapsed on itself early Thursday morning. “There have been some wallets. Some pieces of jewelry. Larger picture frames we have identified to go back to them,” she said.

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“It’s one thing to sit somewhere and imagine what is happening, and it’s another thing to see it for yourself,” said Maggie Castro, a member of Florida Task Force 1.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

The careful effort to preserve at least some of the belongings of the people who had lived in the tower is one of many ways that rescue officials are acknowledging that the daunting, and sometimes harrowing, technical challenges they face are only part of their job. Starting on Sunday, officials began escorting families of the missing to the site to see, close up, an emergency response involving hundreds of rescue personnel.

Some families have been frustrated, and even angry, with the slow pace of the rescue work. But Ms. Castro said she hoped the families’ ability to see the magnitude of the disaster might help them understand why it is so slow-going — and perhaps help them process a reality that can still feel like a nightmare. The work on the site has gone slowly, with no good news since a few rescues on Thursday. At Monday news conferences, officials announced that the death tally had risen, by two, to 11.

“It’s one thing to sit somewhere and imagine what is happening, and it’s another thing to see it for yourself,” she said. “For some of them, this might be as close as they get to their families ever again.”

Officials have explained to families that having too many rescuers on the pile could collapse the narrow voids beneath and further hamper rescue efforts. The families have also seen firsthand the danger rescuers face. On Sunday, one search-and-rescue worker fell 25 feet down the mound, in full view of some family members.

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Search-and-rescue crews left the collapse site on Monday after an overnight shift in Surfside, Fla.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

As agencies from every level of government descended on Surfside and began to outline the contours of an investigation about what went wrong, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said President Biden would support an expansive investigation into the disaster, spanning several federal agencies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the F.B.I.

“Certainly we want to play any constructive role we can play with federal resources in getting to the bottom of it and preventing it from happening in the future,” Ms. Psaki said to reporters on Monday.

Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside insisted on Monday that officials would investigate the reasons for the collapse, but he said it was “an issue for another day.”

For now, he said, the priorities were searching for survivors and supporting the families of the dead and missing.

Thunderstorms have complicated the rescue effort, and more heavy rains blanketed the pile on Monday. When they let up, the curious and the mourning came to see the memorials that have cropped up on fences along the site. The area around the partially collapsed building has been transformed from a mellow beachside idyll to a place of flashing lights and constantly thrumming generators. Rescue workers have painted the floor numbers on the building in green, with notations in orange indicating that searches have been completed there.

At Monday morning’s news conference, Ray Jadallah, the assistant fire chief of operations for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, was adamant that officials had not made the grim decision to end search-and-rescue operations and focus on the uncovering of remains.

He also emphasized the complexity of the efforts. This was not a matter of lifting one floor after another to look for survivors, he said, but of sorting through pulverized steel and digging through concrete boulders. In other areas, rescuers have come upon “larger concrete areas that now require heavy machinery,” a process that uncovered at least one of the two bodies on Monday.

The crews on the pile are using cameras to explore the narrow voids rescuers have not been able to reach. In some cases, they have been following faint sounds. But Chief Jadallah cautioned that this was not necessarily proof of survivors.

“It could be a tap, could be a scratch — it may be nothing more than some of the metal that’s contorting,” he said. But, he said, all variables have to be considered “before we make a decision to move to the next phase.”

The broader effort to clear the site and identify remains may take months, based on similar efforts at collapsed buildings, according to experts. In the short run, using DNA provided by the family members to identify bodies takes about 90 minutes. But the medical examiner must also provide additional confirmation of the remains, a process that typically takes one day.

By all accounts, the disaster has drawn some of the most talented and experienced search-and-rescue crews in the world.

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A medic with Hatzalah South Florida, a volunteer emergency medical service organization that services the Jewish community, rested on Saturday. Search crews have been working day and night since the collapse.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Some of the rescue teams include veterans of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where a few survivors were pulled from the rubble weeks after the main quake. They include Mexico’s famed Topos, or Moles, a volunteer unit, and specially trained rescuers from the Israel Defense Forces.

They have joined South Florida’s own urban search-and-rescue unit, which is also considered one of the world’s best.

Leaders and members of Florida Task Force 1 have trained and held exercises on building collapses at a unique Texas facility known as Disaster City, a training center with collapsible structures that simulates disaster scenes and that is operated by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.

“It’s 16 to 18 hours that they’re spending working,” said Jeff Saunders, the director of Texas A&M Task Force 1. “This particular part of the incident is the slowest pace and there’s very little you can do to speed that pace up. Because it’s all subterranean.”

Though South Florida emergency personnel are perhaps most experienced with responding to hurricanes, they have had experience working on structural collapses, Ms. Castro said.

“But those were not of this magnitude,” Ms. Castro said. “We certainly didn’t see the number of potential casualties that we’re going to see in this particular incident. It’s really, really sad.”

In recent days, Ms. Castro, 52, has been part of the team briefing the families on the progress of the search. She joined Miami-Dade Fire Rescue 17 years ago and right away tried to join Florida Task Force 1.

The requirements and interest are so high that she had to wait until five years ago to join. By then, she already had seven years of technical rescue experience with the county, doing complicated vehicle extractions, road rescues and other structural rescues.

“Being there for people at their worst time is something that is just a calling,” she said.

But helping people find solace has proved, at times, to be as difficult as finding survivors. On Monday, Mr. Burkett, the Surfside mayor, described talking with an 11- or 12-year-old girl at the collapse site on Sunday night. He had seen her before and knew that one of her parents had been in the building. That night, she was sitting alone, looking at her phone.

“She was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site, by where one of her parents presumably is,” Mr. Burkett said. “She wasn’t crying, she was just lost. She didn’t know what to do.”

Madeleine Ngo contributed reporting from Surfside. Reporting was also contributed by Manny Fernandez, Eduardo Medina, Campbell Robertson and Simon Romero.

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