Saturday, October 1 2022

SURFSIDE, Fla., June 29 (Reuters) – Col. Golan Vach, head of an Israel Defense Forces unit specializing in search and rescue operations, had never seen a disaster area like the collapsed condominium building from Surfside, Fla., in his over 20 years of military experience.

Vach’s team, the National Rescue Unit, arrived in Miami early Sunday, three days after the Champlain South Tower partially collapsed without warning as people slept early Thursday.

Once at the site, they found a huge pile of fragmented concrete and mutilated metal, with children’s toys and other personal effects strewn about. In it, they hoped to find and save dozens of people missing from the rubble.

“This is one of the most difficult and complicated situations I have ever seen,” said Vach, who commanded his unit for four years, on Tuesday.

Joining forces with hundreds of American first responders and a Mexican rescue team, the Israelis spent every waking hour either sifting through the four-story pile of debris or meeting the families of the missing, with breaks of two to three hours. to sleep, said Vach.

More than two dozen of the 150 missing were Jewish and had ties to Israel, according to an Israeli official. Several families had expressed hope that the Israeli team, renowned for their skills acquired in rescuing war damaged buildings, would join the frantic search for survivors.

To prepare for the operation, Vach said the teams studied the structure of the South Champlain Tower while still in Israel and built 3D models of the 40-year-old tower. The team then carefully replicated how the tower appeared to have collapsed, with the goal of figuring out how to dig the site with the greatest likelihood of finding survivors.

“We are looking for the rooms because people were sleeping,” said Vach, wearing a religious skullcap and a military green uniform with an Israeli flag on one sleeve.

Vach’s team consulted with families to get the best idea of ​​where their loved ones might have been in their apartments when the building collapsed.

“Our goal is to make the first responder understand where exactly is he digging? ” he said.

Golan Vach, commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) National Rescue Unit, speaks with Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett near the site of a partially collapsed residential building as emergency teams continue search and rescue operations for survivors, Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, United States, June 29, 2021. REUTERS / Marco Bello

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Once they know where they are at the site, crews must penetrate yards of concrete in an attempt to reach the chambers and search for any cavities where survivors may have found a measure of protection, Vach said.

Authorities said they could still find survivors as their search spanned its sixth day, with 11 people confirmed dead.

The community has not given up. In a makeshift memorial near the site, someone left a flowerpot with orchids and an inscribed message: “Estelle, stay strong, come home.”

On the beach, a few hundred yards from the heap of twisted metal and concrete where the intact tower once stood, the word “HOPE” is etched in huge letters in the sand.

Vach said his conversations with the families have been difficult and his team is committed to being transparent with them as the possibility of locating living victims dwindles.

“There are minor chances,” Vach said. “I wouldn’t say there is no chance.”

At the end of their 12-hour shifts, members of the Israeli team meet to discuss and deal with their arduous task.

“Sometimes we cry. It’s natural,” Vach said.

But the team hasn’t given up hope, he says, saying they find new spaces and channels in the layers of debris every day.

“Maybe there is a confined space that someone has left and someone is living in there,” he said.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Arlene Eiras in Surfside, Florida; Editing by Howard Goller

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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