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An inside look at how Tampa Bay firefighters are helping in Surfside

“This is a different ordeal than what we’re used to,” one member of Tampa Bay’s search and rescue task force said.
Members assigned to Florida Task Force 3 working at the site of the residential building collapse in Surfside, Florida Sunday, June 27
Members assigned to Florida Task Force 3 working at the site of the residential building collapse in Surfside, Florida Sunday, June 27 [ Florida Task Force 3 ]
Published Jun. 28
Updated Jun. 28

SURFSIDE — Tampa firefighters Jonathan Hamilton and Nelson Garcia are used to traveling to devastated places. It’s their job to survey wreckage, hand out supplies, and, quite literally, pick up the pieces.

But Surfside, Florida, is a different kind of assignment. On Thursday, a 12-story beachfront condominium in the town of 5,700 collapsed in the night. As of Monday afternoon, 10 were confirmed dead, local officials said, and another 151 remained unaccounted for. Even in a state all too familiar with the grim choreography of disaster, the collapse is feared to be one of the worst mass casualty events on record.

Normally, Hamilton, 37, and Garcia, 35, who are a part of the state’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3, arrive to towns in need of humanitarian resources. This time around, that’s not the mission for their task force, which is comprised of officials from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, Tampa Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.

“This is a different ordeal than what we’re used to going to: hurricanes and floods. Those towns are completely devastated,” said Hamilton, a 16-year veteran of Tampa Fire Rescue, in an interview Sunday. “This is a fully working town except for one square block.”

Nelson Garcia, left, Jonathan Hamilton, right, sit for an interview to discuss their time working the site of the Surfside, Florida, condominium collapse on June 27, 2021.
Nelson Garcia, left, Jonathan Hamilton, right, sit for an interview to discuss their time working the site of the Surfside, Florida, condominium collapse on June 27, 2021. [ Chris Wilkerson, Hillsborough County ]

In Surfside, the site of disaster may be compressed, but the agony is not. Scores of families have waited five excruciating days for signs of loved ones to emerge. Thousands more across south Florida have gone to sleep wondering whether they are safe in their beds. Experts have theories about why the building collapsed, but clarity is likely months or years away.

In the fog of uncertainty, first responders like Hamilton and Garcia are being asked to make sense of the chaos, one piece of rubble at a time.

Slow, but steady progress

The Tampa Bay task force got the call from state officials late Friday. The 72-person team of first responders, engineers and doctors arranged themselves into a convoy of 24 vehicles: fire trucks, ambulances, and big rigs filled with enough equipment to house, feed and accommodate the team. Then they drove to Surfside for a seven-day deployment.

When a building so tall collapses, the pile of wreckage is so massive it can be hard for the casual observer to gauge progress from photos alone. Search and rescue and canine units often have to work below the pile’s surface, unseen. And the job of clearing such a massive pile of debris is slow-going, complex and fraught. Responders, hoping for human-sized voids in the ruins, began digging a trench underneath the pile Saturday night. Their efforts have been halted by thunderstorms, fires and toxic fumes. In total, some 370 officials from eight different Florida task forces are working the scene.

One of the task force’s first big jobs was to set up its headquarters. Today, what they’ve built resembles a small tent city: pop-up canvas structures rest between trees at the North Beach Oceanside Park. Some officials have taken to cleaning themselves in what are normally public beach sand showers. During an interview with the Times/Herald, a cart carrying ice bags arrived onsite. ”We got ice! Yes,” Hamilton cheered. “That’s huge.”

Miami-area police direct traffic around Champlain Towers, which have been largely shielded from public view. Engineers monitor the site with surveying equipment, making sure the wreckage is stable beneath the feet of the rescuers clearing the debris. Between 40 to 50 first responders work the pile, rotating through teams from throughout Florida — as well as first responders from Israel and Mexico.

A truck that transported the equipment from Tampa Bay to Surfside, Florida for Tampa Bay's Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3. The Task force is comprised of first responders and officials with Hillsborough Fire Rescue, Tampa Fire Rescue, and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.
A truck that transported the equipment from Tampa Bay to Surfside, Florida for Tampa Bay's Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3. The Task force is comprised of first responders and officials with Hillsborough Fire Rescue, Tampa Fire Rescue, and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. [ Kirby Wilson ]

The work, by its very nature, is painstaking. Hamilton and Garcia spent the early hours of Sunday morning clearing shards of concrete and rebar bit by bit, stopping whenever the pile lost some of its structural integrity — or when potential remains were discovered by the canine units.

“These piles are alive. They’re constantly moving, and it’s something that has to be watched all the time,” Hamilton said.

It’s hard, physical labor in the dark, and hazards are everywhere. Garcia, who’s served with Tampa Fire Rescue for 13 years, said during his most recent 12-hour shift, he cycled between rebar cutters, a jackhammer, an electric chisel, a hammer drill and a hand shovel. Huge chunks of rubble have to be broken up, inspected, and removed. The pile has the distinct smell of burnt concrete.

The men are constantly checking for signs of life, past or present. At any given moment, the direction of the effort could change. First responders are constantly monitoring a series of microphones for signs of life — taps, cries, clanking, anything — and deferring to canine units for indications that they have discovered human remains. If responders call for silence, everyone stops.

‘There were people in there.’

First responders are used to tragedy. Their job atop a pile of destruction is akin to a doctor performing surgery: It’s difficult to contemplate the human reality and do the job effectively at the same time.

But Hamilton and Garcia said in Surfside, they have each had moments when it’s been hard to separate their emotions from the task at hand.

“When you’re fresh and working, it’s a little easier to stay focused. When you’re tired, you start thinking about that. You start thinking, man, we’re on top of this 12-story building that’s compressed into a two-story building ... you know there were people in there,” Garcia said.

The signs of lives lived are everywhere. Hamilton recounted the glimpse he caught of what appeared to be a headboard mounted to a wall in the pile. A small bit of what used to be someone’s room was still intact. He said he could faintly make out what used to be an electrical outlet, and he could see what used to be plugged into it: a cell phone charger.

Both Hamilton and Garcia are family men. Wives. Two kids apiece. Their work in Surfside has them thinking about how precious life is. Garcia said he hugged his family a little tighter before he left on his mission.

But the loss is also motivating. Surrounded by pain, they work to ease the suffering of others.

“Our heart hurts when we find the remains of somebody,” Hamilton said. “We don’t do this because we want to find remains. We do this because we want to find the live ones.”