Over the next few days, if not hours, authorities could stop rescue missions at the scene of a condo collapse in the Miami area and begin recovery – a momentous move that will likely declare dozens of people missing are dead.
The workers are still digging through the rubble, listening and looking for signs of life. The authorities have promised not to leave anyone behind. But no one has been found alive for a few hours after last Thursday’s collapse. And over time, families recognize that hope is fading – some have referred loved ones to the past for days.
Experts say the decision to move on to a recovery mission is complicated and involves hundreds of factors. Among them: weighing the safety of rescuers against the possibility of finding survivors.
Thomas Miller, director of the National Volunteer Fire Council in West Virginia, called it “the most difficult decision you have ever made in the world.”
“When the crews arrive, there are already victims. Our goal is not to add more casualties to the scene by injuring rescuers, ”he said.
“It would take a miracle”: Families of victims and survivors lose hope as rescue efforts halt in Surfside building collapse
What factors are involved
The grim shift from rescue to recovery is “one of the most critical decisions the Incident Commander has to make”, according to Firehouse, a media outlet for fire and rescue professionals. On a rescue mission, time is critical and rescuers are expected to “be exposed to some calculated risk”.
“If it is a bodily recovery, time is no longer a factor and the risk to firefighters is not acceptable,” the publication said.
The decision to move on to a recovery mission is often made after consulting with engineers, doctors and traumatic injury specialists, Miller said. Crews can also examine wounds from bodies that have already been recovered to predict the condition of others left in the rubble.
Crews are battling fires that can affect survivors, either directly or through smoke inhalation, Miller said.
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Weather conditions play a role, including potential flooding in pockets of rubble mounds where survivors could be, Miller said. The on-site teams are closely Hurricane Elsa Watch and be prepared for the risk of heavy rains and strong winds. But severe weather can hamper rescue efforts and reduce the likelihood of survivors.
The nature of the collapse is also important, said Jim Spell, a 33-year-old firefighting veteran and founder of safety and hazard response consulting firm HAZPRO Consulting LLC. A crepe collapse like the Surfside building can reduce the likelihood of survivors compared to a simple building overturn.
Since buildings are made from different materials of different weights, this can affect the chances of survival. Rescuers should be careful of loose piles of debris and quicksand below.
“No one else can imagine all the factors they face,” said Miller, noting that Surfside’s teams are some of the best in the world.
Search and rescue teams from Mexico and Israel joined the efforts of the internationally renowned Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team, which was dispatched in the event of an earthquake building explosions and weather disasters around the world.
“I don’t think anyone else has the knowledge or the right to guess at the decisions they’re making,” Miller added. “They’re the ones with the live data and details.”
How efforts change during recovery
During recovery mode, the team can work at a slower pace and crews will be able to use heavier equipment that could otherwise cause debris to move or injure survivors in the rubble, Spell said.
Before the heavy machinery arrives, Miller said he expects a break in work as crews pay tribute to the victims at the site and consult with families. He said the shift from rescue to recovery can take a heavy emotional toll on rescuers.
“We are trained to save and to help,” he said. “Going from rescue to recovery is difficult for these crews. “
Spell said the decision is heartbreaking for families as they grapple with their loved one presumed dead.
He said authorities should take the time to answer any questions from family members and offer counselors, psychologists and religious leaders to support loved ones.
“I have been continuously impressed with the way the Surfside team put families first and get them information first,” said Spell.
As incident commanders deploy rescuers in volatile and dangerous spaces, they must consider the looming threat of secondary collapse.
This threat rescue efforts temporarily halted early Thursday and urged search and rescue teams and officials to consider plans for the “probable” demolition of the part of the building still standing.
“Hypothetically, the worst-case scenario: if these columns are really, really bad, we fear they will collapse directly into the parking lot,” Miami-Dade Deputy Fire Chief Raide Jadallah said on Wednesday.
How does this compare to other disasters?
Despite the setbacks, the authorities are still hopeful in the search for survivors. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett cited the case of a woman found alive 17 days after a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013.
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a search and rescue team led by the Military District of Washington Engineer Company changed their mission to a 48 hour recovery mission, according to the US Army website. Genelle Guzman became the fifth and last person to be released alive 27 hours after the World Trade Center fell.
Rescue operations at Surfside have continued for over a week.
But at Surfside, Miller said there were several differences with 9/11. The World Trade Center involved more separate structures, more fires, and heavier smoke from the burning of kerosene.
The Surfside fires were not as intense, which may have extended the search and rescue time.
“There is no set time frame that you can apply to every situation,” Miller said. “Everyone is different in countless ways.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Miami condo search for survivors: when will rescue turn into salvage?