Why the Miami Beach Area Condo Search Seems to Go Slowly

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U.S.|Why rescuers appear to move so slowly at the collapsed building near Miami.


Rescuers continued their search for victims of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Fla., on Sunday.
Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Melina Delkic

  • June 27, 2021, 3:31 p.m. ET

As a perilous search and rescue operation heads into its fourth day in Surfside, Fla., some have asked why the operation at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building has taken so long and whether there is any hope for those left inside.

Officials have assured the public that the local search team, well regarded and sent to disasters around the world, and now working together with Israeli and Mexican teams, was doing everything it could.

The dangers to the rescuers and missing residents are clear and dictate that the process must be slow and deliberate, experts and officials say.

“Inside of there, there is everything from toxic chemicals to fire, smoke, all kinds of other hazards,” Sen. Marco Rubio, who visited the site on Saturday, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “They have to be very careful. If they move one piece of rebar here, the rest of the pile could collapse somewhere else and either hurt the responders or hurt any survivors that might still be down there.”

The search is moving along, after a fire that impeded visibility was brought under control.

Experts are using dogs, sonar, cameras and have created trenches to navigate below the pile, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. One trench is 125 feet long, 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep.

Each building collapse and tragedy presents its own challenges, but experts learn from each one and use information to prevent others.

“It’s a very dangerous site still at this point,” said Joseph Pfeifer, former chief in charge of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness for the Fire Department of the City of New York, who was the first chief on the scene at the Sept. 11 attacks. “It’s that balance of safety and aggressively searching.”

Mr. Pfeifer, whose forthcoming book “Ordinary Heroes” is a memoir of the response to the attacks, has helped coordinate the response to a host of emergencies and disasters. He said that the teams were likely being extra cautious around the risks of any further collapse in the building, large bits of debris moving or getting injured by heavy equipment.

He added that Miami-Dade County had one of the country’s best search and rescue teams.

Timing is also important. It can be difficult to predict how long people will survive trapped in rubble. “The first couple days are crucial,” he said. “Each day, the chances of finding people are decreased. However, there is always hope. It’s important to keep the hope until the point where the reality has to be faced.”

Timothy McConnell, the former New Orleans fire chief who led the response to the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel there in 2019, agreed. “It really takes strong willed, strong minded, strong stomached people,” he said of the search and rescue teams.

The collapse of the New Orleans building, which was under construction, killed three people and injured dozens more in 2019. The search for survivors took days, and the process of clearing the rubble lasted over a year. The final person’s remains were not recovered until almost a year later.

One of the hardest parts, he said, was the lack of closure for many families. Remains were found months later. “That’s hard,” he said.

He urged people who are losing patience with the process to remember that it’s an extremely difficult undertaking. With the heavy debris, the chance of making things worse for survivors caught in the rubble, and the smoke complicating things, it can be precarious.

“What they don’t understand is, do you know how much that stuff weighs?” he said of the debris. “You might need 10 people to move one big piece of stone.” And some parts of the wreckage might be too precarious to dig into. “There were some areas that were unsafe for us to go in.”

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