When a search and rescue team from Israel’s Defense Forces arrived at the Champlain Towers South collapse site in June, they went straight to work, digging through rubble and speaking to the families of those trapped inside.
Among their strengths: Human intelligence — using friends and family to create a map showing where rescuers may find someone.
Though the Israeli team of 15 military reservists worked side-by-side with rescue teams from South Florida and beyond, they never really had a chance to discuss rescue methods or train together.
That was until earlier this month. A team of 15 rescuers — most from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue — traveled to Israel for a week to not only bond over the Surfside tragedy, but to learn from each other.
“I wanted to see them with me in the most happy and opposite situation from Surfside,” said Colonel Golan Vach, head of the Israeli unit, which is part of the Homefront Command of the Israel Defense Forces. “I wanted us, Americans and Israelis, in the future to hear Surfside and remember the journey in Israel not the standing in the rain at 1 a.m. with a body.”
Both teams said they can learn a lot from each other.
“We recognized that we are better together and it helps both of us to share our approach,” said Brandon Webb, a battalion chief with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and the program director for Florida Task Force 1.
Working the Surfside site
Just after 1 a.m. June 24, the beachside condo came tumbling to the ground trapping many inside. In total, 98 people died in the collapse, which is considered the deadliest catastrophic failure of an occupied residential building in modern U.S. history.
Vach said he made the offer for his team — which has had experience responding to hurricanes, earthquakes and other tragedies around the world — within hours.
The team arrived in Surfside a few days later and went straight to work helping to sift through the rubble.
Vach said they were out there for 20 hours some days and when they returned to their hotel — they were staying at the Grand Beach Hotel, which is where the family reunificaton center was — they’d spend hours talking to the families.
The challenges: the weather, the intensity and duration of the operation. Vach said his team helped with the recovery of at least 60 people.
Webb said, while rescuers bond over the tragedy, everyone was focused on the mission.
When the Israeli team left about two weeks after the collapse, the South Florida rescuers were still working the pile.
Team building in Israel
Webb said Surfside was hard on everyone who was there. Being together in a setting far away was healing.
“We never had the opportunity to get needed closure on the back end of the mission with the Israeli team,” Webb said.
While they are still reviewing everything, Webb said it is always is important to debrief.
Vach said his unit is specialized in dealing with building collapses, though they haven’t worked an anything like the Surfside collapse. In the last 10 years, there have been at least four conflicts involving rockets hitting buildings. He said though, they are usually dealing with partial collapses and only a handful of victims at a time.
Part of the visit included a tour of Israel, seeing the Gaza border and the sea of Galilee.
“The tragedy was the end of many things, many lives, property, a lot of hopes, a lot of lives lost, families. But when we looked at the other side of the tragedy we see the advantages each organization brings to the world of search and rescue,” Vach said.
Both say the trip was only the beginning.
“I think you will see in 2022 the continuance of this visit in Israel,” Vach said.
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