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How Rescue And Recovery Teams In Surfside Are Coping

In Surfside, Fla., rescue and recovery crews are among those struggling with tremendous grief over the condo building’s collapse. Some who do such work repeatedly have found ways to cope.


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.


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.


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