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Rescue And Recovery Teams At Florida Condo Collapse Navigate Stress Of The Tragedy

Jul 11, 2021
Originally published on July 12, 2021 3:56 am

Updated July 12, 2021 at 5:56 AM ET

It's hot and humid in Surfside, Fla., but Ryan Hogsten is wearing long sleeves and pants, a helmet and somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds of gear as he stands about a block away from the collapse site.

He is one of the first responders deployed here to help sift through the rubble pile by hand.

"[We use] hand tools like shovels and gardening tools, just digging through the rubble," says Hogsten, a member of the Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team.

His colleague, veteran emergency responder Jack Reall, says team members work grueling 12-hour shifts each day.

"I get to bed at about 2 o'clock in the morning. I get up at, you know, 7:30 or 8 for the next day. And it catches up with you after a while," he says.

The work is physically and psychologically demanding. And despite his decades of experience, Reall says he's not immune to the emotional toll that can come from responding to disasters — including here in Surfside.

"I've had a bad day early on in this," he says. "You know, we all have kind of our triggers that set us off and say, 'this is real.' "

An unfolding tragedy

The grief is palpable in Surfside — and not just from families.

The rescue and recovery workers who rushed in after the Champlain Towers South condo building fell are finding additional victims daily, adding to the rising death toll.

As of Sunday, 90 have been confirmed dead, with 31 potentially unaccounted for.

"The magnitude of this tragedy is growing each and every day," said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. "It's an aching hole in the center of this close-knit family here in Surfside."

Authorities say they are doing all they can to help the first responders in Surfside maintain their mental health, providing everything from on-site counselors to emotional support dogs.

Hogsten and Reall say they're able to get through it with the help of the community and by confiding in fellow team members.

"The brotherhood, sisterhood, that we have in the fire service is probably one of the best things besides having your own family here," Hogsten says. "We've got our second family together, and we truly just lean on each other."

The trauma of what's happening in Surfside has been overwhelming even for those not physically digging through the rubble.

Levine Cava, the county's mayor who has been helping to manage the rescue and recovery effort, broke down during a recent press conference while asking for the public to keep the families in their prayers.

Helping others cope

People hug at a memorial for victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building on July 8 in Surfside, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

At a makeshift memorial covered in photos of the victims and other items like stuffed animals and flags, Charlie Clark looks for mourners.

A member of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team from Charlotte, N.C., Clark offers emotional support to anybody who wants it, what he calls a "ministry of presence."

"You just observe their body language and discern whether they are open to it. You try to be real careful, real sensitive," he says. "You can tell if somebody doesn't want to talk. You just leave them alone, and that's OK."

Clark says one woman from Puerto Rico told him about her childhood friend who died in the collapse. He consoled others throughout the hot days at the memorial.

Even people who didn't know any of the victims of the collapse stopped by the memorial wall, just a block away from the ongoing recovery operation, as the sounds of heavy machinery echoed in the background.

"It's very raw, and it's very real to the ones that come by," Clark says. "Nobody could foresee or even imagine the magnitude of this."

Long road to recovery

Reall, with the Ohio task force, won't soon forget what happened in Surfside.

That's because he plans to come back to observe how the beachfront community rebounds in the months and years after the tragedy, like he did after working at ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11.

"That's a big part of the closure for me," Reall says. "I went back to New York after a few years to see how things are going there. I'll be probably back there this year to see how it is after 20 years."

For now, Reall says his primary focus is finding more victims at the collapse site to help bring closure to families whose road to recovery is just beginning.

"We never really forget those kind of things, it's just how we respond to them and how we recover from them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The confirmed death toll continues to rise in Surfside, Fla. Crews are finding more bodies as they work through the rubble. The grief in Surfside is palpable, and not just from families. NPR's Joe Hernandez brings us the story of how first responders and the community are dealing with the collective pain of this tragedy.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: It's hot and humid here, but Ryan Hogsten is wearing long sleeves and pants, a helmet and somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds of gear. He's one of the first responders deployed to Surfside to help sift through the rubble pile literally by hand.

RYAN HOGSTEN: Hand tools like shovels and gardening tools, just digging through the rubble we're going through.

HERNANDEZ: Hogsten is here with Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team. Next to him is fellow team member Jack Reall. Reall is a veteran of emergency response. He has decades of experience, but he says he's not immune to the emotional toll of responding to disasters, including here in Surfside.

JACK REALL: I've had a bad day early on in this. You know, we all have our - kind of our triggers that set us off and say, you know, this is real.

HERNANDEZ: When the Champlain Towers South condo building fell, it left countless grieving friends and family members in shock. The first responders who rushed to the scene felt this unspeakable loss, too. Hogsten says one of the ways he's able to get through it is by confiding in his fellow team members.

HOGSTEN: The brotherhood and sisterhood that we have as the fire service is probably one of the best things besides having your own family here. We've got our second family together, and we truly just lean on each other.

HERNANDEZ: The trauma of what happened in Surfside has been overwhelming, even for those not physically digging through the rubble. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who's been helping to manage the recovery effort, broke down during a press conference last week while asking people to keep the families in their prayers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: (Speaking Spanish).

HERNANDEZ: Authorities say they're doing all they can to prioritise the mental health of first responders, providing everything from onsite counselors to emotional support dogs.

At a makeshift memorial covered in photos of the victims and other items like stuffed animals and flags, Charlie Clark looks for mourners. He's here with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, offering emotional support to anybody who wants it.

CHARLIE CLARK: We try to be real careful, real sensitive because there's a lot of mixed community here. So you just want to be sensitive.

HERNANDEZ: Clark says anybody who comes to the memorial, even if they didn't know any of the victims, can feel just how devastating the collapse was.

CLARK: So for the ones that come by, they can get a real sense that it's a real event, that people really lost their lives.

HERNANDEZ: Jack Reall with the Ohio Task Force won't soon forget what happened in Surfside. That's because he plans to come back, like he did after working at Ground Zero after 9/11.

REALL: That's a big part of - big part of the closure for me is like, you know, went back in New York after a few years, see what - how things are going there. I'll be probably back there this year to see how it is after 20 years. But we never really forget those kind of things. It's just how we respond to them and how we recover from them.

HERNANDEZ: For now, Reall continues to toil at the collapsed site, hoping to find more victims and bring closure to families whose road to recovery is just beginning. Joe Hernandez, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.