Texas A&M: The Complicated Rescue Efforts At The Florida Condo Collapse

More than a week after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., rescue crews continue to work their way through the massive rubble pile in search of survivors.

Concerns that the rest of the unstable building could come down forced the rescue effort to pause for much of last Thursday, delaying the search for the 145 people who remain missing. What remained of the building was leveled Sunday in a controlled explosion. The destabilization of the pile is one of the major concerns that rescuers encounter when working a building collapse, explains Texas A&M Task Force 1 Director Jeff Saunders.

Elite search and rescue crews across the United States prepare for exactly this type of scenario at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Disaster City, the 52-acre training center in College Station where personnel train on rubble piles that can mimic any type of collapsed structure they may encounter. Florida Task Force 1 has also trained at the site.

As the effort continues, Saunders said, it will be key to prevent cave-ins as crews manipulate the pile.

“Think of it as a mine, and we’re mining our way into a building,” he said. “Mines are built with structural shoring as you go into the mine. This is the exact same. You can’t dig into a pile of dirt without it collapsing on top of you.”

Crews searching the pile are looking for void spaces among the debris where a person could be trapped, he said. Leaders will be concerned with the stability of the pile at this point, and will need to rely on structural engineers at the scene. On top of this, rescuers working 16-hour days also have to worry about weather interruptions.

“They’re already in a dangerous situation, and they aren’t going to put them out there in a lightning situation,” Saunders said. “We’ve got some storms coming out of the Atlantic that may or may not head toward that area, so do they have time to do everything they need? That’s what they’re trying to figure out right now.”

Saunders said Texas A&M Task Force 1 trains tens of thousands of hours each year to prepare for the same work being performed in Florida. The responders have a deep understanding of what crews in are experiencing at the site.

“We all, being responders – I was at the Pentagon during 9/11, which is the largest building collapse that I’ve been through – know what these folks are going through. We actually know many of them,” he said.

Members of the 28 task forces under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Urban Search & Rescue System can be deployed at any time to major disasters and structural collapses. Texas A&M Task Force 1, which Saunders said is the most-deployed team in the country, has deployed 17 times just since last March.

The task force was formed in 1997 following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma two years earlier. Since then, it has responded to 100 deployments. Saunders said the crew has worked all types of building collapses, from those related to hurricanes and tornadoes to the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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