Rescue teams endure wind, lightning and heat during 12-hour search shifts

The search for victims of the Florida building collapse continues
Originally Published: 07 JUL 21 07:23 ET

(CNN) — Through long hours, severe weather, looming danger and even loss within their own community, first responders have continually returned to the site of a Florida building collapse.

There were about 200 search and rescue personnel at the scene Tuesday evening. Nearly two weeks after the overnight collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building — creating a pile of up to 16 feet of concrete — crews there only used heavy machinery when they were sure it was safe. Every piece of debris was methodically analyzed.

Rescue efforts have had only brief interruptions — pausing for the demolition of the remaining structure and for two hours for lightning, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters Tuesday. Otherwise, Florida Fire Marshall and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said Thursday that “operations never stop on site.”

Crew members work for 12-hour shifts, and many don’t go home at the end of the day, instead sleeping in tents to keep their focus on rescuing people, task force leader Chief Scott Dean said last week.

Through those shifts, they have weathered winds of up to 30 mph as Tropical Storm Elsa neared the state, intense heat and the threat of another collapse before the rest of the structure was demolished.

Although no major injuries have been reported among the responders, several have suffered dehydration, Miami Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said. Several cases of Covid-19 also have developed among the search and rescue operations at Surfside.

And even for crews who have prepared to respond to the worst-case scenario, there is no amount of training that can take away the emotional toll of working through the devastation.

Before President Joe Biden’s visit last week, Patronis said he planned to ask for the “the nation’s best mental health experts” to assist in the treatment of PTSD among response officials. They’ve been working in conditions that resemble more of a war zone than a normal search and rescue mission, Patronis said.

Mourning those who were lost in the collapse has become a part of the effort, Capt. Ignatius Carroll Public Officer for Florida Task Force 2 said. When a body is found, they pause and pay a moment of respect.

And as difficult as it can be to think that someone lost a brother, sister, parent or child, teams remain motivated to keep searching aggressively for survivors, officials said.

“It’s hard not to put yourself in that situation — not to put yourself in the position these families are in,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Eddy Alarcon said last week. “We started thinking about it in that way: What would I do? How hard are we going to work to save our family members if something like this were to happen?”

For one first responder, it did happen.

Stella Cattarossi, the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter, was found deceased in the rubble along with her mother, Graciela Cattarossi.

Her father was not among those working on the rescue when she was found Thursday evening, Cominsky said.

“We were able to give the father an opportunity to say his farewells and gave him peace of mind, as well as the family,” Carroll said. “That’s the goal we have with everybody out there on the pile trying to do their best in the search effort: to reunite families with loved ones.”

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