“We’re dealing not only with the exposed elements of the structure itself, but voids and the continuous threats of collapse,” said Obed Frometa, a lieutenant on the Miami-Dade search and rescue team who helped plan the effort.
Piece by piece, layer by layer, that effort continued Friday, with hundreds of emergency workers scouring the debris for any signs of life. At least 35 of the most accessible victims have already been rescued and sent to the hospital. Four have been confirmed dead and 159 people remained unaccounted for. Now crews are focused on probing deeper into the heaps of concrete and metal in hopes of finding anyone trapped farther down.
Outside the wreckage, family and friends of the missing clung to hope as the chances of survival dimmed. The wait has been agonizing. But proceeding with extreme caution is the only option at this point.
“There’s still an anticipation of live victims,” said Dave Downey, former fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. “They’re doing everything necessary to locate and extract them.” Downey said crews were “surgically” removing large blocks of concrete in search of “void spaces” where victims may be boxed in. Large objects such as refrigerators, air-conditioning units, sofas or hunks of concrete may be propping up parts of the collapsed material enough to create pockets that prevent survivors from being crushed.
“They have to be cautious of everything in the surrounding area and the likelihood of a secondary collapse,” Downey said.
The margin for error is slim as teams of canine specialists, engineers, medics and other highly trained first responders navigate the pulverized debris. Even a slight misstep could send more rubble crashing down. Harsh weather has further complicated the work, with thunderstorms threatening to flood or destabilize the structure.
The team leading the operation is the Miami-Dade-based Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 1, an 80-person unit regarded as one of the world’s leading search and rescue outfits.
Formed in the 1980s, the task force is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s network of rescue teams that get dispatched to large-scale disasters at hours’ notice. The disasters it has responded to include the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“These are the best first responders in the world,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) said in a news conference Friday. “These are the ones that are sent to trouble spots.”
This time, the task force is working in its own backyard, alongside crews from other agencies.
Downey, who served on the task force for decades, said he had never seen a building come crashing down like Champlain Towers South did early Thursday. But “the aftermath is something that all the responders have trained for,” he said.
To help with the search, specialists are working with dogs trained to detect live human scent from floors away. They may also use fiber-optic cameras to peer into the debris or deploy listening devices so sensitive they can pick up a human heartbeat.
If they find a survivor, structural engineers will help determine how best to get in. Sometimes that means boring in through the side, sometimes taking layers off the top, Downey said.
Once crews can access a survivor, medics typically need to administer intravenous fluids or even blood before they can pull the person out. This happens even if the person is still pinned down. “Most often, if we can get an arm or a leg, we can start an intravenous line,” Downey said.
It’s crucial to work carefully in such circumstances, Downey said, because survivors could die if they’re moved too quickly. Toxic concentrations of acids can build up in the tissues of people who are crushed or trapped for long periods. Abruptly freeing a person can cause the substances to flood throughout the body and potentially lead to organ failure — a complication sometimes called “grateful dead syndrome.” Getting two or three bags of fluid into a victim before extracting them can be lifesaving.
Downey said he was grateful the crews didn’t have to contend with aftershocks that come when an earthquake destroys infrastructure. But they’re facing strong wind off the ocean, which could loosen debris and rattle parts of the structure. Rain was also beating down throughout the day, forcing crews to take steps to prevent flooding.
By Friday afternoon, the rescue crews had been at it all day with heavy machinery and diamond-tipped drills, working in shifts beneath the hot sun and then torrential rain.
Sweat poured down workers’ faces as they lined up for bottles of water, or sat under a tent with plates of pasta, pizza or a chicken sandwiches, while rescue dogs who were also taking a breather looked their way. Others waited to get out of their gear, smelling of fire and whatever contaminants still burned in the rubble. A small drone flew overhead as a priest walked over to one exhausted-looking firefighter and gave him a hug. For some, the scene conjured the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York — something rescue workers learn about when they are taught about how to deal with “a pancake collapse,” in which building floors fall on top of one another.
Frometa wasn’t at the World Trade Center. But some of the older members of the team were, he said. “A lot of those similarities are here, and I’m sure some of our senior members are having recollections of September 11,” he said.
Eventually, commanders will have to decide whether to move into the recovery phase, a transition that comes when crews have exhausted the search for the living.
“It’s a very difficult decision to make,” said Downey. “The ultimate goal with search and rescue is to bring closure. We hope that means bringing out survivors. And, if not, we want to bring closure to the families.”