A delicate decision: When to end the search for Florida condo survivors

Even as officials and rescue workers pledge hope, however slim, that life could be found within the voids of the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex near Miami, the language around the tragedy has subtly begun to shift into the past tense.

Mourners paying their respects at makeshift memorials near the cordoned-off site have begun to speak of the lost, while local and federal officials are publicly asking for, as Governor Ron DeSantis said this week, a little bit of luck, prayers and some miracles.

“They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly,” President Joe Biden said of the families of the missing after meeting with them Thursday.

Federal, state and local officials said they were still committed to continuing the search-and-rescue effort in Surfside, and they have mostly declined to answer questions about when and how the search might shift to recovery. A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was not that agency’s call. The Florida Division of Emergency Management referred all questions to the county. And officials with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue did not respond to a list of questions about how any change to recovery would be decided.

When the time does come, the decision is a delicate one. It must balance both empathy for the hopes of traumatised families and the realities of the disaster at hand, with no survivors having been found since shortly after the collapse on June 24. The designation of a recovery effort could unlock new, potentially faster ways of tunnelling through the layers of concrete to find remains, including the use of heavier machinery. It could also allow the families of the missing to move forward in the grieving process.

Less than a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks brought down the World Trade Centre, Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York at the time, refrained from explicitly changing the operation for workers on the site, even as he declared that it was unlikely any more survivors would be found and instructed the city to begin issuing death certificates for the missing.

“We’re all big, burly dudes, tears streaming down our faces, making that decision,” said Michael J Fagel, who was a scene-safety and logistics officer after those attacks and involved in the transition period. “It was not a singular decision — with a heavy heart, you make that call.”

Often, search efforts continue for days without any good news. When a federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, no survivors were pulled from the rubble after the day of the attack, though federal training materials say it was 11 days before the search was officially deemed a recovery.

The circumstances surrounding the collapse in Florida are particularly fraught after a week of extraordinary complications: The building collapsed in layers, making it extremely difficult to tunnel through without putting people in danger, and thunderstorms that have plagued the rescue mission could soon worsen with the onset of Hurricane Elsa. Workers were forced to pause for at least 12 hours Thursday over concerns about the stability of the building and the rubble where they had been searching, a frustrating decision for both families and the workers.

“That’s the hardest for me — because you want to help, and you cannot, and there’s nothing you can do,” said Tal Levy Diamenshtien, an officer with the Israeli search-and-rescue delegation.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said early Friday evening that she had authorised the demolition of the remainder of the building, which is still standing, because it is a safety threat. She did not specify a timeline for the building’s demolition, and said engineers would need to sign off.

Officials are also reevaluating the structural integrity of other buildings in the region, leading to the Friday night evacuation of a 10-story condominium complex in North Miami Beach. The building, Crestview Towers, was built in 1972 and had submitted a recertification report, based on a January inspection, that documented “unsafe structural and electrical conditions”.

Levine Cava said the top priority at Champlain Towers South remained the search for survivors, but Friday, it was four additional victims who were found, including the body of the 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter. Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers paused the search to pay their respects and flank her removal from the scene.

The police did not identify the girl but confirmed the deaths of Bonnie Epstein, 56, and married couple Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69, and Claudio Bonnefoy, 85, raising the known death toll to 22. As many as 126 people are still unaccounted for, a number that was revised down after officials determined that some people included in the tally had been located.

Rescuers and emergency medical workers refused to abandon hope, even as they acknowledged that it dwindled with each day. People have survived for many days after building collapses elsewhere, as seen after earthquakes in Haiti and Mexico. Additional urban search-and-rescue teams, activated by FEMA this week, headed down to Surfside to help assist with the search efforts and preparations for the incoming hurricane.

“I’m not going here right now with the hopes of finding victims — we’re going down there with the goal of finding survivors,” Ken Pagurek, the leader of Pennsylvania Task Force 1, said as he drove down to Florida on Thursday with more than 70 engineers, doctors, logistics experts and other specialists, and five dogs. “I still think there’s a slim chance. A slim chance is better than no chance.”

Yuval Klein, 42, an officer with the rescue unit sent by the Israel Defence Forces, added: “The chances are very low, but at the same time, there’s always hope — we’ve seen miracles. We don’t want to close that option.”

Battling intense Florida heat and thunderstorms, teams of structural engineers, logistics experts, firefighters and reserve specialists have manned the site, combing the rubble in front of the remaining structure.

They have recovered fragments of individual lives — a suitcase, stuffed animals — from underneath the slabs of concrete, which are layered on top of one another and difficult to move.

Others have painstakingly interviewed families, coaxing them into remembering the specific details that could prove crucial to identifying places in the wreckage: the location of the bedroom, the colour of the carpets, where the bed was positioned. That information has been used to reconstruct an internal map of the building and help navigate the rubble.

Even if workers shift away from a rescue mission, they will remain on site, searching for remains in an effort to bring closure to the families.

“You have to find the last missing people,” said Golan Vach, the commander of the Israeli National Rescue Unit, a branch of the Israel Defence Forces, adding that the pressure was enormous on the county, the city and those working the scene. “You have to find people very fast, and it’s impossible to find them fast enough.”

The deputy commander of the Israeli team, Elad Edri, 40, said he planned to work through the Jewish Sabbath, the period between sundown Friday and after nightfall Saturday, for the third time in his life. He had previously worked through the weekend during the 2017 earthquake in Mexico and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

“We will save lives — by saying ‘save lives,’ it’s not only the lives of the trapped, it’s the families,” Edri said, adding that a lot of the families were trapped not knowing where their relatives are. He added, “it’s better for them to know.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Emily Cochrane
Photos by: Scott McIntyre
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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