When the Surfside Condo Collapse occurred on June 24, members of Task Force Six in North Naples knew they may be deployed to support their firefighting brothers on the east coast.
“Initially I was shocked,” Erik Espineta, North Collier Fire Rescue Battalion Chief said, "once they learned that it was not an act of violence or terrorism, that it would happen in such a modern, progressive city as Miami was shocking.”
Five members of the North Collier Fire Rescue Task Force Six team were soon deployed to Surfside.
"I wondered if we were going,” said task force member Gregg Abenanti. "Are we deployed? What assets are they calling for? Are they calling the department TRT team, or the task force? That all starts. Then all of a sudden, as information is disseminated from the state level on down, we get the word - ‘It looks like we might go tomorrow afternoon.' Then the next morning it was, ‘We’re leaving in an hour and a half.'”
"We just packed up what we could,” said Dennis Kerr. "Our gear’s always ready. What we’re going to be wearing for protection, that’s always ready. How many days are you going to be over there? They give you a three-hour window to get there. We had to prepare our families. As far as the magnitude, when you saw it on the news, you didn’t know if the condo was fully occupied or if it was a seasonal building. How bad of a collapse was it? You’re wondering how many people are trapped and how many people actually got out of it. It turned out that only one kid got out of it. The rest of it was recovery mode. The first two days were rescue, but after that you knew it was recovery. In our minds going over there, that’s what we were thinking of.”
The scene the Task Force Six members found when they arrived in Surfside was much more grave than they had even imagined.
“Much worse,” Espineta said remorsefully.
“When you see it on the news,” Abenanti said, "you see it online, you see videos. Then when you see it in person, it’s like Jesus!”
What the task force members refer to simply as “the pile” was the remains of Champlain Towers South. Their task was daunting.
“It’s like, ‘Where do you start?” Espineta said. “When you’re standing there, looking up at the top of the pile and you realize you’ve got to de-layer from the top down. You know you’re going to be in for a lot of work. And you’re going to go through a lot of equipment. The worst part for us initially, was trying to get through the roof material. Because the roof, with the tar and gravel, would tear up your tools and jam ‘em up. You resort to hand tools. So that was the really slow part, initially, trying to get through that. And you see areas where you think there might be a void in there, that it might be survivable, but you’ve got smoke billowing out of it because there’s fires involved.
All the while the firefighters worked on the pile, they were threatened by the remainder of the condominium that was still standing and looming over them.
"The entire time you have a 13-story building hanging over your head while you’re working underneath it,” Espineta said, "and you’re worried about the stability of that building. But once you’re in work mode, you’re just focused on what you’re doing.”
"You’re working,” Kerr said, "you’re constantly thinking about that tower that’s still standing. That’s always on your mind. Is it moving? Is it shifting? The pile itself was always shifting under your feet. We were working 45 minutes on the pile, 45 minutes off. So, everything was changing. Just rubble moving. You could feel it moving.”
The pile consisted of a nightmarish mix of broken concrete and twisted rebar. Any movement by the firefighters was treacherous.
"You would lose your footing,” Espineta said. "It would be a win when you could move a giant slab of concrete without having to break up a bunch of smaller stuff. So, if you moved a big column out of there with a crane, it effects the next piece of concrete or column that was next to it. So, you would get a little bit shifting. But just walking up the pile, you had loose debris everywhere. Rebar sticking up everywhere. There was no running down in a hurry, that’s for sure."
The scene was unlike anything the firefighters had ever witnessed.
“It was surreal,” Espineta said, “you had smoke coming everywhere. Which at the time we didn’t realize there were still fires burning when we were on our way over. We thought it was concrete dust, which should have settled by then. We arrived there 30 hours after it happened."
"We parked like three blocks away,” Kerr added.
"As you got closer you could smell it,” Espineta said, “It’s a fire! The first two days we were there they were making great efforts trying to extinguish the fire. It was just an access issue getting water to the scene of the fire. The fire would start to die down, then you had a sea breeze come in in the afternoon and it would stoke it back up."
The magnitude of the destruction hit Kerr when they approached the building for the first time.
"I think walking up from where we were set up to camp was surreal,” Kerr said, "you’re walking down this street, the media’s there, police and firefighters all over the place. Then you get up to the building and all we saw was the existing building that was still standing. We had to walk down a back alleyway to see the actual collapse. Once you got around that alleyway it hit you. We’re going to be here a while. This is not a two- or three-day thing. Once we started working, every day we came back it just felt like we were not making any dent in the pile. But it was a mental thing on us because we were working noon-midnight. Then they had a midnight-noon shift. So those guys were working, too. But I think mentally we were picturing a lot more work being done and being brought off that pile than actually happened. But if you saw pictures every day, you did see a decrease in that pile. But seeing it every day you just felt discouraged."
Espineta said failing tools added to the frustration.
"It was very frustrating when we had tools malfunctioning,” Espineta said. “And it wasn’t anybody’s fault. We had power issues. We had too many jackhammers going, it was tripping breakers. We didn’t have enough amperage. Or we would run out of fuel right when we’re starting to make progress. Or you would sling a slab of concrete that you just spent an hour and a half trying to cut and free from the rebar, but as soon as they’d lift it, it would fall apart because it was so brittle from the initial collapse. And now you just had a bunch of little rubble that you had to get rid of. That was very frustrating."
Espineta said his task force is used to attacking a project and seeing tangible results. The Surfside project was a different animal.
"The pace that we like to work at,” Espineta said, "that we’re used to working at in an emergency situation is fast, fast, fast. When you were finishing an entire shift and not having much progress, it was very frustrating. Then you just had to step back and take a look at the pile and say, ‘Look at what you’re trying to accomplish.' It’s like eating an elephant, you have to do it one bite at a time. Now to see the progress that they’ve made, you just know how much work it took to get it to that point. And you realize you were one small part of it."
Their goal was simple.
“To try to find as many people as you could,” Espineta said. "Whether they were alive or not, you could bring closure to the families. Also, the goal was to learn something on this scale and bring something back to this side of the state. Train on it and educate the rest of the guys. So, if, heaven forbid, something like this happens again. We live in the 'what if' world. If this happens again, we’ve gotta be prepared."
When they first arrived at the disaster site, the task force was hopeful of finding people alive. Their hopes were soon dashed.
“Initially, we were hopeful,” Espineta said. “Most of it was a pancake collapse. Which is just like it sounds. But there was a large part of the collapsed building next to the existing building that was a lean-to collapse with a lot of voids in it. Our goal was to try and get to those areas as fast as we could. It was just such a methodical process with so many hazards involved. You had fire involved. Slowly but surely, it got a little more realistic that whatever survivors they had were already out. We were going into recovery mode. And quite honestly, I think in our heads we went into recovery mode before that. When you’re pulling a piece of ceiling drywall off of a piece of carpet and you’re literally peeling it off the carpet - there’s no survivable space there. We’re literally working, and we knew the likelihood of finding someone alive was slim to none."
The task force was involved in finding 23 victims during their week at the site. Each discovery was a sobering feeling - but a feeling of accomplishment nonetheless.
“In our field you see it a lot,” Espineta said. "It was a sense of accomplishment. You’ve got somebody. Somebody’s family can have closure. You’re in an area where you might find more now."
“I echo what the chief is saying,” Kerr said. “If you weren't finding bodies you were finding photos, jewelry, household items.”
Some of the items the firefighters found hit home.
"Especially kids,” Kerr said, "you’d find kids' toys. The two of us have kids. That's hard.”
“I know that I walked away from part of that,” Espineta said. “Because I don’t need to find the shoes and toys. Because we knew what was in there. But you’ve gotta keep looking. Then the guys without kids would say, ‘I’ve got this part.’”
“It affects everybody differently,” said Abenanti, "I don’t have kids, so I would volunteer to handle the kids' stuff. But there were guys on our force whose kids had the same books that we found.”
“We were looking at this area of units, the 02 stack,” Espineta said. "There’s a four-year-old girl, and this guy has a four-year-old girl. You find a book that’s the same book you read to her. That’s hard. If affects everybody different".
The sheer size of the pile make a huge impact on Kerr.
"The initial size of the pile,” Kerr said, "to realize every layer you see on that pile was an entire floor of people’s homes.”
Abenanti was also awed by the pile.
"The size of the pile,” Abenanti concurred, "the magnitude of the situation, will always stick out. But guys from different parts of the state - we all take the same classes - we don’t have to ask any questions. We know their capabilities. That’s why they’re here. We didn’t really have to talk to anybody. We knew what we had to do with the equipment that we had on site. To work with guys I’ve never worked with before was pretty impressive to watch."
"That’s why they have a unified system,” Espineta said, "so when you’re handed a tool you know how to use it. When you give them a specific task, everyone knows the objective and how to handle that task.”
Kerr was also impressed with the teamwork and the assembled talent.
"The task force is above and beyond,” Kerr said. "So, if you’re going to rank things in order of firefighters in general, we’re all firefighters, we all run the same calls that other firefighters run, but we’re also TRT members of our own departments. We do technical rescues for our departments. And above that is the tactical level. So that’s where you find the people who commit the most amount of time and energy into these rescue techniques. Everybody you’re working with are alpha personalities doing hard work, and our level we’re not chiefs or command staff or anything like that, we’re workers. When you take the leash off us, we’re going to work. And everybody on the pile is like that. So, to be around that many like-minded people was awesome."
"You turn us loose,” Abenanti said, "you’re going to get a result. That was awesome, just to see the whole state working together. It was definitely something I took away from it. Just working with so many squared-away dudes."
"My initial response was,” Espineta said, ‘you’ve got Task Force One and Task Force Two, which are the authority in this field - they’re the best of the best. We’re Task Force Six. Task Force One and Two are federal task forces. Miami Dade was one of the founding teams in Florida. Quickly when we went over there, we were paired up with Task Force Two. It was a little intimidating. But when you realize you were all trained the same, you all have the same goals, you all have the same work ethic - it was great to be part of that team. It was actually an honor to be over there with those guys, doing that work."
The five task force members who went over from North Naples were the only representatives from Collier County. In Lee County there were several departments represented.
"We have 13 members of our technical rescue team that are part of Task Force Six,” Espineta said.
Everything came to a halt when a victim was found.
“Early on in the operation there was a lot of religious procedures that had to be respected,” Espineta said. "You had to notify the command staff. They would notify the medical examiner. They would notify whoever was taking care of it, whether it was a rabbi or a priest, and we would basically stop working on that area. They would come and do their thing that they had to do. And then you would just remove the body and get it sent over to the medical examiner's office for identification."
The longer they worked, the more bodies they recovered.
“In our time there,” Espineta said, "the week that we were there, there were 23 bodies recovered. At first it was slow going. There was one found one day, one the next day, three the next day - and that’s where some of the frustration sets in, because you know that there’s 100-something people missing. So, the initial frustration when you weren’t finding anything was, ‘Hey, you’re not making a difference yet. Let’s get going.’
It was quite a somber occasion every time a body was discovered. Even for veteran firefighters who have seen a lot.
“In this profession,” Espineta said, "if you’re lucky, you’re eased into it. You kind of build a defense before you see anything too bad like that. Part of the issue was that they were allowing the family member to come into the neighboring building to witness what was going on. Witness us working. Initially we were all opposed to that, because of the pressure. But I think what it did was it allowed the family members to see the gravity of the scope of what we were working with. And it quickly went from, ‘You guys aren’t doing enough. You’re not working fast enough,' to once the families saw what we were working with, it changed their tone. They understood."
“Like the chief said,” Kerr echoed, "there was one a day, there was two a day, there was three – the recovering numbers started picking up, then the families were not pressuring us but leadership, politicians."
“Seeing us working quickly changed their minds,” Espineta said.
"I guess they thought at the start that progress wasn’t being make quickly enough,” Kerr said.
“Understandably,” Espineta said, "until they saw the gravity of it."
All three firefighters agreed on the saddest moment.
"The firefighter’s daughter,” Abenanti said.
“Yeah,” Kerr agreed, "I think the recovery of the Miami firefighter’s daughter. It really hit me. I’ve got three daughters. When they recovered her and brought her out...I’ll never forget that.”
Espineta put it in perspective.
"There’s a sense of responsibility for the family,” Espineta said, "because he’s one of us. You wanted to work hard for him. You want to work hard for everybody, but it hits a little closer to home when it’s one of your brothers."
While happy moments were few and far between, the firefighters all hold some special memories.
"There was a sense of accomplishment when you recovered an item,” Espineta said, "whether it was remains or personal effects. So those were accomplishments. Good things that happened."
"We got fulfillment from that,” Abenanti agreed.
"And the camaraderie we built,” Espineta said. "There was that kind of situation. Working with some of the guys you’ve been training with. We worked side-by-side. Shared a tent together. Joked. Ate meals together."
"We had 14 in our tent,” Abenanti said.
All three firefighters said they’d be first in line to be deployed when another emergency arises.
"I think all the guys from Task Force Six would go over in a minute,” Kerr said.
"We had guys who didn’t get deployed,” Espineta said. “There were a certain number of spots. They were upset. Every day they were texting or writing me, saying, ‘Hey, is there any way I can get over there?’ We’ve got a group of guys who want to do that stuff. That’s what they train for, and they want to utilize their training.”