The fire chief’s instructions were clear before Coco’s rescue attempt began: The firefighter could not set foot on the balcony nor go inside the apartment — the structure is still not deemed safe — but he could shout Coco’s name in hopes that the green-eyed cat would walk out the balcony door that was usually left open so she could roam in and out of the apartment, Russell said.
Tuesday’s efforts to rescue Coco, which were handled by a separate team from the one digging through mounds of debris as they continue searching for the 145 people still unaccounted for, come as family members await news on their loved ones nearly a week after part of the condo unexpectedly collapsed overnight.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Russell told The Washington Post. “So for there to be some hope that families can be reunited with these pets in this tragedy, it is important. They are going to have lost so much. If we can at least help them reunite with their pets, it’s worth a try.”
The firefighter who attempted to rescue Coco is part of the brigade in charge of securing the rescue perimeter and putting out any fires that may arise as crews search for survivors, Russell said.
“Our priority is human life,” Russell told The Post. “We are still in a rescue phase. That is the absolute priority and that is where our resources are. These search efforts for animals are not taking away any search efforts, resources or time for humans.”
On Tuesday, the Friends of Miami Animals Foundation and Russell’s office announced the launch of a hotline for residents whose pets are still missing. The group hopes to create the first official database for missing pets, including their unit, gender, owner and other information. Those who need help relocating their pets or assistance caring for them, Russell said, can also call the hotline (833-366-2642).
Coco is one of at least two pets believed to be inside the still-standing section of Champlain Towers South, Friends of Miami Animals Foundation founder and chief executive Yolanda Berkowitz told The Post in a statement.
Although Miami Dade firefighters have done sweeps looking for any signs of life, a spokesperson with the Miami Dade County Animal Services Department told The Post no animals have been found as of late Tuesday.
Mia, a 4-year-old gray cat who had been lying by owner Susana Alvarez’s feet when the building began shaking early Thursday morning, is also believed to be somewhere inside Apartment 1006, most likely under her bed where she hid, Alvarez told The Post in an interview.
Alvarez, who was able to grab only her phone before fleeing through a fire-escape door, is still grappling with the guilt of leaving Mia behind.
“Before I walked down the stairwells, I thought, ‘Do I go inside and rescue Mia?’ and then I said, ‘No, I have to get out.’ So to a certain extent it’s my fault because I was so scared I had to get out,” Alvarez, 62, told The Post.
Although Alvarez has gone to the site and the nearby resident reunification center since Day 1 to make a plea for her cat, she is also mourning the loss of neighbors, some of whom she had known since she bought a unit there 11 years ago. Alvarez said she understands all efforts must be set on finding any people who may still be alive.
“I don’t want to undermine the loss that occurred in that building,” Alvarez told The Post. “Mia was beautiful. Mia was my cat. Mia doesn’t deserve to die. But there was a tremendous human loss in that building. If I go on my phone right now, most of the phone numbers that I have here, those people are no longer alive.”
But Alvarez is still hanging on to hope that Mia, one of the about 12 registered service pets who lived in the building, still has a few more days to be rescued. (Technically, only service pets were allowed in the building, she said, though it’s possible other unregistered animals were inside.) “I think she is under my bed. Sometimes animals can survive things that humans can’t.” She said she also hopes Coco, the cat thought to be on the fourth floor, and a pair of parakeets who lived on the fifth, are still alive.
On Tuesday, Alvarez said, she received two calls from police officers who said they were willing to go up to the 10th floor in a cherry picker to look for Mia if authorized.
Russell, the District 2 Miami City commissioner who has been visiting the search site for days to deliver food to firefighters, said someone recently reached out to him about Coco, the missing cat. The cat’s owner and her 89-year-old mother were able to escape with their dog Rigatoni, but Coco was left inside their unit.
“Wait, a cat is still there?” Russell recalled before speaking to one of the owners. He was told if someone could get up to the unit with some food and tried yelling Coco’s name, the cat probably would come out. So, Russell, whose wife is a veterinarian, took notes and contacted the fire chief, who eventually gave the green light for one of his men to go up there aboard the cherry picker.
But on Tuesday, after calling her name for minutes without any sign of Coco, the firefighter left the food and water on the balcony.
“Theoretically, Coco has the ability to survive until we can get to her,” Russell said.