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Elite task forces end their recovery mission at Florida condo collapse site

Task force members who spearheaded the response to the Champlain Towers disaster have returned home after weeks of work clearing the debris pile.

SURFSIDE, Fla. (CN) — Two elite rescue teams on Friday ended their deployment at the site of the Surfside, Florida, building collapse after a month-long mission that recovered the remains of more 90 victims of the tragedy.

Members of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces worked 12-hour shifts digging through the rubble in search of potential survivors after the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed June 24.

The twelve-story building suddenly crumbled to the ground in the early morning hours, killing dozens. On Friday, the death toll stood at 97.

Task force members slept onsite, spending nearly every waking hour immersed in the recovery effort. A city within a city was built, with generators humming nonstop and makeshift structures set up for housing and bathing.  

“The rescue workers that are here, stay here,” Maggie Castro, a Task Force 1 member, said of her team in an interview in the aftermath of the collapse. “They have military-style tents set up.”

Rescue workers at first were toiling away in the shadow of a still-standing section of the condominium amid uncertainty about its structural stability. That section was demolished the evening of July 4 to ensure worker safety.

Members of Florida Task Force 2 search through the debris field in Surfside, Fla., after the collapse of a 12-story condominium. (Photo courtesy of Florida Task Force 2 US&R)

When asked about the conditions at the site — the blistering Florida heat and wave of thunderstorms that battered the workers during the recovery effort — Castro said her team was unfazed.

“This is our environment. This is our home,” she said.

Many of the departing rescue workers on Friday visited the sprawling memorial to the victims a few hundred yards from the collapse site. Pictures of families wiped out in the collapse lined the chain-link fence alongside notes of appreciation to the rescue team. One early tribute to the first responders said: “Thank you for looking for my grandma.”

Task Force 1 is comprised of specialists from the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue department. Task Force 2 is sponsored by the City of Miami but has team members from across South Florida. The groups led the initial response to the building failure and were later joined by Urban Search and Rescue workers from across Florida. Hundreds of additional rescue technicians from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana traveled to Surfside to participate in the mission.

The two task forces finished their deployment Friday by returning to separate fire rescue headquarters in the Miami area. Rescue workers’ spouses and children greeted them on arrival.

Henry Wong, a fire lieutenant and Task Force 1 member, smiled as he hugged a family member upon returning.

“It means everything to have him back,” the family member said while she and Wong embraced. “Can’t take anything for granted.”

Firefighter David Varona told local outlet WSVN that his team “left everything on the pile, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Varona worked tirelessly at the site and could be seen in the aftermath of the collapse heading towards the rubble with his eyes bloodshot and his clothes soaked through with sweat and caked in dust from the debris.  

“I never thought in a million years that I’d be digging in my backyard for victims of a building collapse. But it was an honor to serve the community of Surfside,” he said.

The task forces are part of a group of 28 teams spread across the country that work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster responses.

They both were deployed to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and helped out in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Among dozens of other deployments, the two teams provided aid in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which razed large portions of the Florida Keys.  

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava released a statement hailing the recovery efforts.

“The men and women of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue ran into a collapsed building on the early morning of June 24 and haven’t stopped since. They are true superheroes who have stepped up to serve this community in the wake of unprecedented disaster — not just by leading the search and rescue and recovery operation but through the care and compassion they demonstrated to all the families, doing everything they could to bring closure to those who lost loved ones,” she said.

Millions of pounds of concrete have been removed the site, and the towering pile of debris was cleared away from the foundation.

The mayor said the recovery operation is being turned over to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which will continue to search for remains and personal belongings in debris.  

No survivors have been found in the rubble since the morning of the tragedy.

First responders on July 23 visited the memorial for victims who died in the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse. (Photo courtesy of Florida Task Force 2 US&R)

The tragedy hit home for first responders, as a City of Miami firefighter’s daughter was among the building’s residents who were missing in the days after the collapse. The municipal fire department and Miami-Dade Police later confirmed that the 7-year-old girl, Stella, and her mother, Miami photographer Graciela Cattarossi, had perished. The girl’s aunt and grandparents were fatally injured as well, according to a Miami Herald report.  

Fire Lieutenant Ignatius Carroll said that the grieving father bid farewell to his daughter at the site upon being notified that her remains had been found.

“Standing side by side with our brother, we hope we were able to bring some closure to him,” Carroll said.

The investigation into the collapse is ongoing, with engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other agencies evaluating the building’s repair history and design.

A 2018 inspection report found that failed waterproofing had led to “major structural damage” to a concrete slab near the building’s pool deck, and that the deterioration would “expand exponentially” if not repaired.

The report was issued in preparation for the building’s 40-year recertification, which was required under Miami-Dade County regulations.

Slated for this year, the recertification project involved a top-to-bottom restoration of the building. Roofing work was already underway at the condominium but structural repairs had not yet begun before the building crumbled to the ground.

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