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Rescue And Recovery Teams At Florida Condo Collapse Navigate Stress Of The Tragedy

Jack Reall, left, and Ryan Hogsten are members of the Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team. They were deployed to Surfside, Fla., after the condo collapse.
Jack Reall, left, and Ryan Hogsten are members of the Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team. They were deployed to Surfside, Fla., after the condo collapse.

Updated July 12, 2021 at 5:56 AM ET

It's hot and humid in Surfside, Fla., but Ryan Hogsten is wearing long sleeves and pants, a helmet and somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds of gear as he stands about a block away from the collapse site.

He is one of the first responders deployed here to help sift through the rubble pile by hand.

"[We use] hand tools like shovels and gardening tools, just digging through the rubble," says Hogsten, a member of the Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team.

His colleague, veteran emergency responder Jack Reall, says team members work grueling 12-hour shifts each day.

"I get to bed at about 2 o'clock in the morning. I get up at, you know, 7:30 or 8 for the next day. And it catches up with you after a while," he says.

The work is physically and psychologically demanding. And despite his decades of experience, Reall says he's not immune to the emotional toll that can come from responding to disasters — including here in Surfside.

"I've had a bad day early on in this," he says. "You know, we all have kind of our triggers that set us off and say, 'this is real.' "

An unfolding tragedy

The grief is palpable in Surfside — and not just from families.

The rescue and recovery workers who rushed in after the Champlain Towers South condo building fell are finding additional victims daily, adding to the rising death toll.

As of Sunday, 90 have been confirmed dead, with 31 potentially unaccounted for.

"The magnitude of this tragedy is growing each and every day," said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. "It's an aching hole in the center of this close-knit family here in Surfside."

Authorities say they are doing all they can to help the first responders in Surfside maintain their mental health, providing everything from on-site counselors to emotional support dogs.

Hogsten and Reall say they're able to get through it with the help of the community and by confiding in fellow team members.

"The brotherhood, sisterhood, that we have in the fire service is probably one of the best things besides having your own family here," Hogsten says. "We've got our second family together, and we truly just lean on each other."

The trauma of what's happening in Surfside has been overwhelming even for those not physically digging through the rubble.

Levine Cava, the county's mayor who has been helping to manage the rescue and recovery effort, broke down during a recent press conference while asking for the public to keep the families in their prayers.

Helping others cope

People hug at a memorial for victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building on July 8 in Surfside, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
People hug at a memorial for victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building on July 8 in Surfside, Fla.

At a makeshift memorial covered in photos of the victims and other items like stuffed animals and flags, Charlie Clark looks for mourners.

A member of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team from Charlotte, N.C., Clark offers emotional support to anybody who wants it, what he calls a "ministry of presence."

"You just observe their body language and discern whether they are open to it. You try to be real careful, real sensitive," he says. "You can tell if somebody doesn't want to talk. You just leave them alone, and that's OK."

Clark says one woman from Puerto Rico told him about her childhood friend who died in the collapse. He consoled others throughout the hot days at the memorial.

Even people who didn't know any of the victims of the collapse stopped by the memorial wall, just a block away from the ongoing recovery operation, as the sounds of heavy machinery echoed in the background.

"It's very raw, and it's very real to the ones that come by," Clark says. "Nobody could foresee or even imagine the magnitude of this."

Long road to recovery

Reall, with the Ohio task force, won't soon forget what happened in Surfside.

That's because he plans to come back to observe how the beachfront community rebounds in the months and years after the tragedy, like he did after working at ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11.

"That's a big part of the closure for me," Reall says. "I went back to New York after a few years to see how things are going there. I'll be probably back there this year to see how it is after 20 years."

For now, Reall says his primary focus is finding more victims at the collapse site to help bring closure to families whose road to recovery is just beginning.

"We never really forget those kind of things, it's just how we respond to them and how we recover from them."

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