As the rescue efforts stretch into a sixth day at the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, the community there has begun to lose some hope of finding many survivors among the roughly 150 people who remain unaccounted for. According to the New York Times, more than 200 emergency responders are working at the site at any given time. But only 11 people have been pulled from the remains of Champlain South Towers since half of the 13-story building collapsed on Thursday. The Times predicted that it would go down as “one of the deadliest accidental building collapses in American history.”
To get a sense of what a rescue operation looks like during the later stages of such a catastrophe, Slate spoke with Michael Fagel, an emergency manager who worked at the scene of the Oklahoma City Bombing and at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11. Fagel, who teaches and has written books on emergency planning and crisis management, spent his career working in various emergency services. He spoke with Slate about the specific challenges of the Surfside collapse, the echoes of past disasters, and the reasons to hold onto hope.
Can you describe what they are doing in Surfside right now?
Right now they’re de-layering. While they’re de-layering, they are shoring up the basement and the lower levels. They’re using every single element they’ve ever learned and pushing their way through the building. If you look at some of those old pictures of Oklahoma City, it’s the same exact scenes you’re seeing today in Florida; it gives me chills. You’re crawling on slabs, you’re crawling through rebar, you’re crawling through every potential conceivable level of debris, not knowing what one step or one movement will do next.
What comes next in that operation?
They’re still searching for live people. I can’t tell you when they’re going to stop. People are working this against an operational plan. They have team members looking at every angle, looking at every lesson that they learn from the last crew that came off the pile. They are going, “Well, this worked pretty well over here in this sector. Let’s try this over here. Let’s bring in this particular piece of machinery, let’s bring in this level of firefighting foam.” Every time a crew comes off the pile, they’re saying, “What did you need?” “Well, I wish I would have had an X, or a Y, or Z.” That’s what’s going on second by second.
Are there particular challenges that come later in the process?
Remember, the last live victim taken out in Haiti was eight days in. After September 11, when we were coming up to the time when we’d switch the gears from rescue to recovery, with tears streaming down our face going, “Wow, it’s over, we’re not gonna have any live victims”—I know that feeling all too well, and it gives me knots just to think about it right now. But here at this particular building, they will find more deceased people, I know that, but they may find live people. So don’t give up. That’s the absolutely critical element.
Are we hoping against hope? No, we’re using our tools. They’ve got more equipment than we ever had in 1995 and 2001. Look at what’s happened in two decades: They have sonar, radar, they have ground-penetrating cameras that can see through concrete. They have tools that can look in a void, they have tools that can look in a slab. We never had that in 2001 and in 1995. We were threading what I would consider an analog camera through a pipe for people to see. Today, the technology is so much more efficient. And the ability to hear the sounds is so much better. People would actually stop the rescue and have a moment to listen for a moan, or a whimper or a whisper or scream. Those are things we did. But they’ve got better sound equipment, better camera equipment, better shoring equipment to beef up their structure to make it much safer.
Can you tell me more about your experience in Oklahoma City and with September 11?
Oklahoma City, I got there the night of April 19, 1995. Our mission was to help assigned crews as they briefed into the mission. We’re telling them what they’re going to see, touch, smell, taste, do. We were telling them they were going into. And looking at the crews to see if they were capable of going on the mission. Sometimes we had crews with deer-in-the-headlights look. Sometimes we had crews that we didn’t feel were going to be safe enough to operate. And if we had someone who just didn’t look like they were going to be capable of handling that mission, we would say, “Hey, would you go over to supply and get me five of these, two of these, and six of these?” And so [you] would be able to leave the team with dignity. And we’d resupply you and put you someplace else.
At the World Trade on September 11, I was assigned to the fire department. We were logistics, safety, everything under the sun. Finding American flags to put the victims under, or body bags or flashlights or coveralls or whatever it could have been—we found the things they needed to do the mission. Our mission changed on a moment-to-moment basis. We were worried about security. We were worried about safety. We worried about how we keep people wearing the respirators. We had no idea what was in this acrid smoke in the air. My job was to keep crews in the proper personal protective equipment: their respirators, their helmets, their eye protection. And I didn’t succeed, because if you look at pictures, a lot of the crew either chose not to wear them or they got destroyed while they were digging. And people would say, “I don’t need this,” and they throw the respirators away. Or they say, “Don’t argue with me, because I’m in there digging for my friends,” which is very true. And, sadly, many people have gotten sick from World Trade. I got sick from World Trade, lost a kidney due to kidney cancer. And I’ve got some lung issues and some other stuff. But knock on wood, I’m pretty lucky, I’m still here.
How do you prepare these workers for the trauma they’re going to experience?
We try to. We didn’t say, “Your mind’s going to be messed up for the next 30 years.” Because it is. I will tell you that I worked April 19, 1995, and I thought at that point I had been through a lot. I’d been a police officer, I’d been an emergency medical ambulance operator, I’d been a public safety guide. But I was not ready for that. And up until September 11, 2001, April 19, 1995, filled every part of my soul, every inch of my brain. I could not get that out of my head. We think because we put the uniform on, we’ve got these superhuman protective powers, and we don’t.
That’s where people get hurt. And that’s where we’ve got to let people know that it’s okay to stand down. It’s okay to say, “I can’t do this.” You’ve got to take yourself off the high alert for a minute or two and step away from this for now, because your brain is doing 200 miles an hour. That’s what we’ve got to do. And that’s what we don’t do. The people who work on the missions may not have anything come up on him until a year from now. Or they may be on another call where they see another building that looks just like this. We never know.
So you’re saying there are first responders who aren’t working in Miami who are still struggling seeing this.
I would believe that right now, people who are still alive from Oklahoma City are seeing those images. I see it. I feel it. I hear it. I smell it. I touch it, I taste it. It’s all right there. It’s like a scab that may or may not have healed over and now all of a sudden, you just rip the scab off from the bottom up. I’m not healed up from Oklahoma City, September 11. And all of these members who are out there working, they have no idea what this will do to them in a year.
What are other parts of this operation that people might underestimate or might not understand from the outside?
Well, people might say, “Why are they going so slow? Can’t they dig faster?” The answer is no. They cannot dig faster. They cannot take this beam away and move this piece of rubble without knowing what’s underneath it. Because if they do, something else may fall, crush, or collapse someplace else that they don’t see. You can’t move one piece without something else falling into place. It looks like it’s going slow, but it’s not. It’s happening in a very orchestrated manner.
Are there any specific elements of the Miami building collapse that makes this different from OKC and the WTC?
It’s the infrastructure, it’s the building, it’s the weather. You’re getting rain, so you’re having more slippery elements. You’ve got some heavy heat. So now you’ve almost got what they call a weather inversion, which may be keeping the smoke down on the ground level instead of letting it blow up. Temperature, heat—every one of those things gives you a different atmospheric condition. And every one of those signatures gives you a different way you’ve got to react.
The Oklahoma City bombing was an explosive force that pushed it outward, up, and then it came down. Whereas from all the pictures and video in Miami, when the buildings came down, they just looked like they collapsed onto themselves. So the way the building came down, the way the structures came down, it’s not the same. It may look like the same pile of debris, a pile of buildings still standing. There are some similar characteristics, some similar pancakes in there. But it is totally different, and the techniques they use at Oklahoma City cannot be used here. So they are writing the book as they go through this, inch by inch.
Is there anything else you want people to know about a situation like this?
We need to support the community, because this will have a community effect. This occurred in Surfside, Florida. When we in the rescue and fire, EMS, law enforcement business say Surfside, we’re going to say “Surfside building collapse.” If you say Columbine, in our world, you say “Columbine shooting.” If you say Oklahoma City, in our world, you say “Oklahoma City Bombing.” So this community will forever ever be known as the place the building collapsed.