A team of firefighters from Gainesville was among the Northeast Florida first responders assisting in the search, rescue and recovery efforts in Surfside.
Gainesville Fire Rescue’s eight Urban Search and Rescue specialists returned Sunday from South Florida. They’re specially trained to work with cranes, heavy machinery and detection equipment, but they’ll admit they’ve never seen anything like the monumental efforts at the site of the Champlain Towers South condominium building collapse.
“They worked around-the-clock. I don’t think people can put into context how hard these guys worked. When I met with our team last night, they are completely exhausted,” GFR District Chief Don Campbell told News4Jax on Monday.
The crews that first responded to the collapse on June 24 were from the Miami area, but in the days following, other teams came in -- like Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8, which is composed of technical rescue specialists from GFR, Marion County Fire Rescue and Ocala Fire Rescue.
“The work is extremely difficult physically, mentally. It’s extremely dangerous. They make it look easy,” said Campbell, who leads GFR’s Urban Search and Rescue Team.
The team finished its mission this weekend. It wasn’t easy. They didn’t find any survivors. They were part of the teams that pulled bodies of the missing from the rubble.
“No. 1, we want to go and rescue people and to try to remove people from a bad situation to give them a good outcome. But absent of that, if you can’t do that, you want to do whatever you can to try to serve those people that have been so dramatically affected,” Campbell said. “So even if you’re bringing closure to them and giving them their family member back in some sort of closure, if that’s the best outcome they can come from it, they still have a desire to do that.”
The members of the team -- which has deployed before, helping after hurricanes in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas -- support each other with prayers and camaraderie.
On Sunday evening, a demolition crew took down what was left of the Champlain Towers South to make it safer for the search teams. Rescuers from around the world still working in dangerous conditions.
“If you lift or cut something wrong, you can cause a secondary collapse,” Campbell explained. “If someone was still alive in one of those voids, and you caused that void to collapse or fill up with debris, and that might not be a space someone could survive in. So everything you’re doing is surgical on a gigantic pile of debris.”
The Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8 firefighters get four days off the reset their gear, destress and spend time with their families before they get back on the job, responding to emergency calls. They are, however, preparing for whatever Tropical Storm Elsa may bring.
On Friday, a team of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department Urban Search and Rescue personnel returned from its deployment to Surfside.