Concerns incoming tropical storms may hamper rescue efforts

Israeli rescue team head at Florida building collapse says not giving up hope

Col. Golan Vach maintains there is still a chance of pulling people out alive from rubble nearly 6 days after disaster; says team built 3D model of site before they flew out

Crews from the United States and Israel work in the rubble of Champlain Towers South condo, in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Crews from the United States and Israel work in the rubble of Champlain Towers South condo, in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

The head of a team of Israeli search-and-rescue specialists working at the site of a Florida apartment building that partially collapsed last week said Tuesday there was still hope of pulling people out alive, even though nearly six days had passed since the condo tower crumpled to the ground.

Col. (res.) Golan Vach told the Reuters news agency that the disaster is “one of the most complicated and difficult situations I have ever seen.”

Nearly 150 people are still missing, believed buried under the rubble.

“There are minor chances, but I would not say there are no chances” of still finding people alive, he said. He noted that in other collapse disasters, buried people have been saved after similar periods of time.

“Every day we find new spaces, new tunnels and we get into the site from below, from the side, from above,” Vach said. “We are trying to find new places to penetrate.”

Col. Elad Edri, the deputy commander of the team, told reporters Wednesday that the Israeli rescuers were operating under the assumption that there may still be survivors trapped in the rubble.

“We believe there are still” people alive, Edri said. “We’re treating those trapped as still living.”

Screen capture from video of IDF Col. (res.) Golan Vach, head of the Home Front Command’s National Rescue Unit, at the site of a Florida building collapse, June 29, 2021. (Reuters)

Authorities say it’s still a search-and-rescue operation, but no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse on Thursday. The body of another victim was recovered Tuesday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 12, with 149 people still unaccounted for.

The IDF’s National Rescue Unit headed by Vach consists of 10 reserve officers from the Home Front Command, all top experts in engineering.

Before leaving for the US earlier this week, the team built a computer-generated three-dimensional model of the building and then combined that with information from the families of those missing to determine where the occupants would most likely have been when the building collapsed, Vach said.

“You have to understand exactly where the bedrooms were,” he explained. For example, he said, “Where do they sleep?”

The model was then “smashed” to recreate the situation on the ground and provide information for rescuers on where they should direct the search.

Edri said that the rescue team had also interviewed relatives of the missing to try and map out the relevant apartments and identify any of their belongings amid the rubble.

The interviews, he said, “teach us where to direct people in the search.”

Search and rescue workers carry equipment onto the rubble of an oceanfront condo building that collapsed the week before, with many dead and unaccounted for, in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Unit members are working 12-hour shifts, Vach said, but there is an emotional toll that goes with the physical challenge of the painstaking rescue effort.

“Sometimes we cry. It’s natural,” Vach said. “We talk, every night, with all the people [involved in the rescue] and we share.”

“It gives us strength. It’s our job,” he said.

Edri said the IDF delegation, which arrived on Sunday, is currently slated to depart next Sunday morning but may stay at the rescue site longer.

Work at the site has been deliberate and treacherous. The collapse of the building left layer upon layer of intertwined debris, frustrating efforts to reach anyone who may have survived in a pocket of space.

Several members of the Israeli rescue team worked partly on hands and knees Tuesday over a small section of the rubble, digging with shovels, pickaxes, and saws. They removed debris into buckets that were dumped into a metal construction bin, which was periodically lifted away by a crane.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said the work has been extremely difficult, but “we’re out here 110%.”

“These are the times that are the most difficult,” Cominsky said. “We are here to do a job. We are here with a passion. Hopefully, we have some success.”

Mourners visit the makeshift memorial near the site of the collapsed condominium in Surfside, Florida, on June 29, 2021. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)

A further complication to the rescue operation is local weather patterns.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, rescue officials sounded a horn for a second time during the day’s work, signaling an approaching storm with lightning. Workers temporarily evacuated.

The possibility that severe weather in coming days could further stretch Florida’s search and rescue resources prompted state officials to ask the federal government for the additional team, Kevin Guthrie of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said Tuesday. Already, intermittent bad weather has caused temporary delays in the search.

Guthrie said the new team, which would likely come from Virginia, would be on hand if severe weather hits the area in the coming days and allow crews that have been working at the site for days to rotate out.

“There are two areas of (possible storm) development out in the Atlantic, heading to the Caribbean. We have eight urban rescue teams in Florida. We talked about doing a relief,” Guthrie said at a news conference Tuesday night.

“We have all the resources we need but we’re going to bring in another team. We want to rotate those out so we can get more resources out.”

The National Hurricane Center says two disorganized storm systems in the Atlantic have a chance of becoming tropical systems in the coming days, but it is unclear at this point whether they would pose a threat to the US.

Rescue crews work in the rubble of Champlain Towers South residential condo, in Surfside, Florida, June 29, 2021. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Elected officials have pledged to conduct multiple investigations into the sudden collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside last week.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that she and her staff will meet with engineering, construction and geology experts, among others, to review building safety issues and develop recommendations “to ensure a tragedy like this will never, ever happen again.”

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she will pursue a grand jury investigation to examine factors and decisions that led to the collapse.

Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condominium, June 28, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Gov. Ron DeSantis evoked a well-known military commitment to leave no one behind on the battlefield and pledged to do the same for the people still missing in the rubble.

“The way I look at it, as an old Navy guy, is when somebody is missing in action, in the military, you’re missing until you’re found. We don’t stop the search,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the White House announced that US President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden would travel to Surfside on Thursday.

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