Rescuers battle fire, noise and moving steel and concrete as they scramble to save lives
By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
The sounds offer hope, officials said on Friday amid a frantic and swift mission to find survivors trapped under the rubble of a partially collapsed condominium tower in Surfside, Fla.
While it’s not clear how many people were in the part of the 12-story building that fell, dozens of the victims remain missing. The death toll has risen to four.
Rescuers above and below the rubble use light and heavy machinery, as well as an array of technology, in their research, said Raide Jadallah, deputy chief of operations for the Miami-Dade Fire Department.
As machines move debris – so careful not to disturb voids where survivors could be trapped – rescuers use listening devices, sensitive enough to hear the ticking of a watch, to detect sounds indicating that someone might be trying to publicize their location, officials said. It’s a tricky science because there is so much noise emanating from the debris, Jadallah said.
“These are not specifically human sounds. It could be tapping. It could be some kind of steel twist. It could be some sort of debris raining down, ”he said. “From below, we continue to use light machines – saws, jackhammers – as we continue to tunnel below. “
He added: “We have hope. Whenever we hear a sound, we focus in that area, so we send additional teams, using the devices, using dogs.
The efforts have only just begun
People can survive a week or more under the rubble, so despite a day and a half in the rescue efforts, the mission is still in its early stages, officials said.
On such a perilous scene – conditions are exacerbated by wind and rain, which can disturb the rubble – those working in the debris risk their own lives, Jadallah said. Fires caused by overheated lithium-ion batteries and other combustible materials also pose dangers, officials said.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava echoed Jadallah’s concerns.
“This work is carried out at extreme risk for these people,” said the mayor. “Debris is falling on them as they do their jobs. We have structural engineers on site to make sure they won’t get hurt, but they do it because they’re so motivated.
At least 130 firefighters were part of the effort on Friday morning, Jadallah said. This is in addition to other local, state and federal personnel who descended on the scene during the day.
The state fire marshal’s office is sending additional urban search and rescue teams, and more teams are on standby, said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Emergency Management Division. The regional coordinator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who issued an emergency declaration, arrived overnight. About 15 other FEMA officials, along with additional emergency management staff from the state, will arrive on Friday, Guthrie said. And more help was on its way from Orlando and Naples early Friday, officials said.
As search dogs sniff out the rubble and rescuers use technologies like sonar and cameras to explore voids that could provide refuge, the fires that appear remain a concern – and not just because the fire itself. even constitutes a danger.
The fires, in some cases, disrupt the infrared technology rescuers use to find survivors, and the water used to extinguish the flames “adds enormous weight” to the rubble, “Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said. and as crews pump water, they also “move materials that create a ripple effect,” he said.
“It then calls into question the integrity of what’s still there – and then that delicate balance of saving lives while risking lives,” he said.
The work is “orderly, swift, yet deliberate,” said Chief Scott Goldstein, an urban search and rescue specialist who heads the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland.
There is one rescue operation left
The priority is to find those under the rubble, Goldstein said, and rescuers are working to stay focused so they “don’t miss any signs and indications of a victim trapped in the building.”
The condo tower appears to have undergone what is known as a ‘crepe collapse’, meaning that the walls that make up the building’s structure have failed, so voids may be less common here than in a building where a single wall or a cantilever or other support mechanisms failed, he said. However, a video released by county officials Thursday night shows voids in the underground parking lot, he noted.
“Each of these spaces offers opportunities for a survival zone. Seven to 10 days, it’s not uncommon for someone to be found alive and removed from a horrific event like this, ”Goldstein said.
As rescuers dig through the rubble – sometimes forcing them to get on all fours and, in the tightest areas, on their stomachs – the building is moving, so the remaining structure is constantly monitored, he said. declared. As crews move the rubble, the debris pile is assessed and lumber and heavy lumber is put in place for stabilization. The weight of the rain isn’t helping, Goldstein said.
“When they make a hole or drill a hole in concrete or remove a piece of furniture or a filing cabinet, then it creates a void and they have to back it up,” he said.
Surveillance devices on the portion of the building that remains upright alert rescuers to movement within the structure as they tackle dangerous suspended debris, former Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said. They are also working to channel rain and water from fire hoses dripping into the debris, while “drying up” areas already inundated, he said.
“Today we are moving more search and rescue personnel, and we are also moving some equipment to start a very precise delamination to lift some of those heavier slabs and, again, start to uncover all the empty spaces. potentials, ”Downey said. “We have structural engineers who will be there to assess the structure, tell them where they can go, where they can’t go, what they need to do to stabilize parts of the structure.”
City Manager: Do you know anyone? Say something
The victims have already been extracted from the lighter rubble, officials said, and because some of the stairwells were compromised, rescue teams used ladders to reach people trapped in the still-erected part of the tower. condos.
Homicide detectives and the medical examiner are on hand to help identify victims pulled from the rubble, Miami-Dade Police Department Director Alfredo Ramirez said.
But officials stress that it remains a rescue operation.
The scene is cordoned off, with strictly supervised access. And authorities are asking the public for help in identifying who may have been in the building at the time. Although it is estimated that about 80% of the 136 units were owned or rented, families in Surfside tend to travel “a lot”, especially in June, so authorities are struggling to count who might be. missing, chief executive Andrew Wyatt said. .
It’s “a bit of a concern,” Wyatt said, that officials aren’t getting more phone calls from residents stating they’re traveling or doing well.
Downey implored anyone with information about who was or was not in the building to call the county’s missing persons hotline at 305-614-1819.
“The sooner we can get a reliable list of those who are missing, it will help search and rescue operations,” he said. “If someone says someone has disappeared in a certain apartment, we can focus… in that part of the building. Right now they’re looking for needles in a haystack.
Teams are also examining the license plates of vehicles in the garage in hopes of meeting the owners of the automobiles with the names of those who are missing, rescued or lucky enough not to have been in the building, Patronis said. , the fire marshal.
Patronis and Downey are confident that, given the training and experience of those involved in the rescue, they will locate anyone stuck in the rubble. Some of the teams have worked all over the world, Downey said.
“We’ve had every department in this region in response, but the skills of these men and women are unique,” Patronis said. “They are… built to go from building to building after a hurricane disaster, man-made or natural. They are used to digging through debris to find lives.
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CNN’s Mel Alonso, Sanjay Gupta and John Berman contributed to this report.