Shortly after 1:20 a.m. on June 24, 2021, a large section of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. It was one of the largest non-hurricane emergencies in the state’s history, killing 98.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 40 – No 10 – October 2021
Search and rescue teams spent weeks scouring 18 million pounds of concrete to rescue survivors and recover victims. As the coordinating medical team manager for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Urban Search and Rescue team, I was one of the first (and last) physicians on the scene.
The front of the building looked fine, but then we walked around the building. It was just a giant rubble pile. You could hear screaming and crying. Everyone was just trying to figure out what was going on. We were going up through a collapsed part of the floor in the parking garage, trying to rescue anyone we could reach. We were sloshing through water past our knees. I remember looking over and seeing a Tesla parked nearby, hardly visible because it was under water. Thoughts were running through my mind as we assessed the scene: Are we going to get electrocuted? Is the rest of this building going to come down on us? How do we secure the scene? What hazardous materials are we dealing with?
We could hear a teenage girl crying out for help from within the rubble, trapped behind a mass of rebar, dumpster, and concrete slabs. We spent hours trying to locate her, but eventually we stopped hearing her calls. A fire broke out, forcing us to pull back until we could control the flames. After that, we knew she had passed.
The Floating Photo
I walked out from the garage rubble and was standing on a pool deck that had collapsed down a little bit. Floating in the pool water was a black-and-white wedding photo, probably from the late ’70s, taken inside a synagogue. I thought about the people in the photo: Is this someone who survived, or is the only remaining person from the family now lost in the rubble? I set it aside, eventually taking a photo of it with my phone and sending it to a local Jewish community leader to see if he knew any of the people in the photo. As we found more items, we started collecting and cataloging them. I think we’re probably up to nearly 15 huge bins of items we’ve brought out from the rubble. We knew these people didn’t have time to get to their belongings when the building collapsed, but these are memories. We thought they might bring some comfort and closure to the families.