In the coming days, or possibly hours, authorities may stop rescue missions at the scene of a Miami area condo collapse and begin recovery — a momentous decision that will likely declare that scores of missing people are dead.
Workers are still sifting through the rubble, listening and looking for signs of life. Officials have promised not to leave anyone behind. But no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse last Thursday. And as time goes on, families recognize hope is fading — some have been referring to loved ones in the past tense for days.
Experts say the decision to shift to a recovery mission is complicated and involves hundreds of factors. Among them: weighing the safety of the rescuers against the possibility of finding survivors.
Thomas Miller, West Virginia director of the National Volunteer Fire Council called it “the toughest decision you’ll ever make in the world.”
“When crews arrive, there are already victims. Our goal is not to add more victims to the scene by injuring rescuers,” he said.
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What factors are involved
The somber switch 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. During a rescue mission, time is critical and rescuers are expected “to be exposed to a certain amount of calculated risk.”
“If it is a body recovery, time is no longer a controlling factor, and risk to firefighters is not acceptable,” the publication said.
The decision to move to a recovery mission is often made after consulting engineers, doctors and traumatic injury specialists, Miller said. Crews may also look at the injuries of the bodies that have already been recovered to predict the state of others left in the rubble.
Crews have been battling fires that may affect survivors, whether directly or through smoke inhalation, Miller said.
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Weather conditions play a role, including potential flooding in pockets within the mounds of rubble where survivors might be, Miller said. On-site teams are closely monitoring Hurricane Elsa and preparing for the risk of heavy rainfall and strong winds. But severe weather may hamper rescue efforts and reduce the likelihood of survivors.
The nature of the collapse is also important, said Jim Spell, a 33-year firefighting veteran and founder of the hazard safety response consulting company HAZPRO Consulting LLC. A pancake collapse like the Surfside building may reduce the likelihood of survivors compared to if the building simply tipped over.
Since buildings are made with different materials of different weights, that can change the likelihood of survival. Rescuers need to watch out for unstable piles of debris and shifting sand underneath.
“No one else can imagine all the factors they’re dealing with,” Miller said, noting that the teams in Surfside are some of the best in the world.
Search and rescue teams from Mexico and Israel have joined the efforts of the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue team, which is internationally known and has been dispatched to earthquakes, building explosions and weather disasters around the world.
“I don’t think anyone else has the knowledge or right to second guess 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 may work at a slower pace and crews will be able to use heavier equipment that might otherwise lead to shifts in debris or could injure survivors in the rubble, Spell said.
Before the heavy machinery comes in, Miller said he expects there will be a pause in the work as crews pay respect to victims at the site and consult with families. He said shifting from rescue to recovery can take a heavy emotional toll on rescuers.
“We’re trained to save and to help,” he said. “To shift from rescue to recovery is tough on these crews.”
Spell said the decision is heart-wrenching for families as they grapple with the knowledge that their loved one is presumed to be dead.
He said officials should take the time to answer any questions family members may have and offer counselors, psychologists and religious leaders to support loved ones.
“I’ve been continually impressed with how the team at Surfside has been prioritizing families and getting them the information first,” Spell said.
As incident commanders deploy rescuers to unstable, dangerous spaces, they must consider the looming threat of a secondary collapse.
This threat temporary halted rescue efforts early Thursday and have prompted search and rescue teams and officials to consider plans for the “likely” demolition of the part of the building still standing.
“Hypothetically, worst-case scenario: If these columns are truly really bad, we are worried they could collapse right back into the parking garage,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raide Jadallah said Wednesday.
How does this compare to other disasters?
Despite setbacks, officials are still holding out hope in the search for survivors. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett cited the case of a woman who was found alive 17 days after the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh.
Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a search and rescue team led by the Military District of Washington Engineer Company changed its mission to one of recovery after 48 hours, according to the U.S. Army website. Genelle Guzman became the fifth and last person to be pulled out alive 27 hours after the World Trade Center came down.
Rescue operations in Surfside have continued for more than a week.
But in Surfside, Miller said there are several differences to 9/11. The World Trade Center involved more separate structures, more fires and heavier smoke as a result of burning jet fuel.
The Surfside fires have not been as intense, which may have lengthened the search and rescue timeframe.
“There’s no set time frame that you can apply to every situation,” Miller said. “Each one is different in countless ways.”