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‘As fast as we can go’: Inside the strenuous search for Florida survivors

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Rescuers look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 27, 2021 in Surfside, Florida./AFP
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Jun 29, 2021 - 04:02 AM

SURFSIDE — It is the fifth day, and rescuers have heard no human sounds from within the massive, smoking pile of twisted metal and concrete.

Miami-area firefighters, their faces tight with exhaustion, tunnel piece by jagged piece into the debris, searching for any sign of the more than 150 people still unaccounted for after the 12-story beachside apartment building collapsed in the middle of a sweltering Florida summer night, its residents asleep inside.

For the families of the missing, the progress is agonizingly slow, and their anger, frustration and grief is palpable.

Rescuers say they understand the desperation.

“I know the families ask why we are not going faster,” says Maggie Castro, a paramedic with the Miami-Dade county fire department.

In a strange way it is hope itself, even now, that is slowing them down, she explains.

“We have the potential for having void spaces, these pockets that can potentially be in the rubble where we can find live victims,” she tells AFP.

“If we just jump on these piles and attack, we will collapse these spaces.

“It seems slow but it’s as fast as we can go.”

The difficult task — complicated by torrid heat and humidity, regular thunderstorms, and, in the first days, a fire deep within the debris that took a long time to bring under control — must be carried out in a “methodical and strategical way.”

“Heavy machinery cut large pieces and remove the ones that are safe to be removed. When we come to an area where there would potentially be a void space, we work by hand, remove debris bucket by bucket until we get to the area we want to,” Castro, a 52-year-old rescue specialist who has been with the department for 17 years, says.

With listening devices and sniffer dogs they strain for any sound that could lead them to life.

“We hear falling debris, twisting metal,” Castro says. “We have not heard human sounds.”

‘We haven’t found anyone’ 

Nine people have been confirmed dead so far since Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, near Miami Beach, partially collapsed in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The first rescuers to arrive in the moments after the tower came down helped evacuate dozens of residents, and pulled one teenage boy alive from the rubble.

As the death toll inches upwards, Castro explains that many of the residents were likely in bed at the time, meaning there was little chance of finding many of them in one place.

“We don’t know what happened to them when the collapse happened. Nothing falls and stays in place, they go in every direction,” she says.

Moises Soffer, a volunteer with the Latin American Jewish organization Cadena International, is helping with the search with his dog Oreo, a pomsky who at just under two years old is specially trained to find survivors.

“She can go wherever she wants, into craves, voids where people normally don’t go, because of her weight she can go where there is instability,” says Soffer, 36, from Mexico.

When it is too dangerous or the rubble is too unstable, he says, “we do tracking, she gives me a sense of direction with the leash.”

Oreo can work for five to six hours at a time, with 20-minute breaks. But in Surfside she goes out early in the morning and late in the day because of the heat and humidity.

Soffer is not allowed to say whether his dog has detected any survivors, but says he and his dog will be there “until we are done.”

As Castro admits, it is not only the families who are feeling increasingly desperate with each passing day.

“It’s difficult,” she says.

“We get tired, and it can be emotionally taxing when we’ve been searching hours and hours and we haven’t found anyone.”

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