Face shut, exhausted after hours of searching in the sweltering heat, rescuers have been doing ant work for five days in the rubble of the collapsed building in Surfside, near Miami, where more than 150 residents are still missing.
The 300 Miami-Dade County firefighters, supported by reinforcements from across the state of Florida, were deployed as soon as the 55 apartments of the Champlain Towers complex collapsed overnight from Wednesday to Thursday.
In this pile of scrap metal and concrete, operations are progressing step by step… too slowly for some families of the victims. Maggie Castro, a member of the Miami-Dade Fire Department No.1 Search and Rescue Unit, understands the anger and frustration. She assures AFP that “it seems slow, but we are proceeding as quickly as possible”.
Rescuers “work by hand”
“It’s a difficult operation,” disrupted by regular thunderstorms and a fire that takes a long time to control, she said. “We have to search through a huge pile of rubble in a methodical and strategic way,” she explains. “There are areas with potentially air pockets where there may be survivors. If we rush into this rubble and attack it aggressively, we destroy these spaces ”.
The first rescuers, who arrived shortly after the disaster, managed to bring a living teenager out of the ruins. The disaster left at least nine people dead, and found human remains have yet to be identified. Faced with the toll which is slowly increasing despite the scale of the tragedy, Maggie Castro explains that “these people were probably in bed when it happened”, so there is little chance of finding a large number at once.
And, she emphasizes, the building did not fall vertically but “in all directions”. Large construction machinery, two cranes and an excavator, were deployed on Friday. When a concrete slab is lifted, rescuers “work by hand, clearing the rubble with buckets,” says Maggie Castro.
Bitch trained to look for survivors
Between 50 and 60 people, rescuers and dog units, are constantly working on the site, supported by image and sound research technologies to locate air pockets. Moises Soffer, volunteer for the Latin American Jewish organization Cadena International, participates in the research with his dog Oreo. The little pomsky female, almost two years old, is specially trained to find survivors.
“I let her go and she goes where she wants.” In holes, spaces where an adult cannot go, in unstable places thanks to his weight, ”says his master, 36 years old and from Mexico. If Moises Soffer detects a danger, the reconnaissance is done with the leash and the dog “gives a direction” to follow. Oreo can work five to six hours in a row, with 20-minute interruptions. But in Surfside, she goes out early in the morning and late in the day, due to the heat and humidity. Moises Soffer does not have the authorization to say if his dog has detected survivors, but assures that he will stay “as long as necessary”.
Hope is fading
The hope of finding living victims is dwindling day by day. “We hear falling debris, twisting metal, but we haven’t heard human noise,” said Maggie Castro, 52, 17 of whom spent with the Miami fire department. “It’s difficult, tiring, and it can be emotionally heavy when we work for hours on end without finding anyone,” she admits.
Faced with the impatience of the families of the victims, including many members of the Jewish community, the county has agreed to welcome a team of ten Israeli soldiers who will be integrated into the teams there. For her part, Maggie Castro recalls that her unit has experience: the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Some of his teammates also participated in relief operations after the Oklahoma City and 9/11 attacks.
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