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One Of The World's Best Search And Rescue Teams Has Been Called To Their Own Backyard

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At least four people are dead after yesterday's collapse of an oceanfront condominium in Surfside, Fla. A hundred and fifty-nine people are still missing. Among the reasons for some hope - well, one of the very best search and rescue teams happens to be based in Miami-Dade County. This elite squad has traveled the world in the wake of earthquakes, building explosions and the 9/11 attacks, searching for survivors in the rubble. Now the team finds itself working in its own backyard. Jenny Staletovich of member station WLRN has the story.

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: Within hours of the building collapse early Thursday, search and rescue workers were already tunneling through the rubble in a basement garage and doing the job they were trained to do. At press briefings, local officials like Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah and Florida Senator Marco Rubio each praised the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: This work is being done at extreme risk to these individuals.

RAY JADALLAH: It's the risk versus benefit. Every time we have that belief that there's hope, you know, with personnel that are trapped, we do risk our lives.

MARCO RUBIO: You never want this to happen anywhere. But we are blessed in this community to have literally the best people in the world in Urban Search and Rescue.

STALETOVICH: Pete Gomez was a founding member of the original search and rescue team in the 1980s, when firefighters in Miami and Fairfax County, Va., were asked by the State Department to create a team to aid in international rescues.

PETE GOMEZ: They came down to South Florida and basically said, hey; are you interested in this?

STALETOVICH: A city firefighter at the time who wanted to go beyond the usual role of fighting fires said, of course. Gomez would become an assistant fire chief and command Miami's search and rescue team. Over the next two decades, the crew would be sent to Mexico City, El Salvador, Turkey, New Orleans, Houston and Lower Manhattan. He says no matter the disaster, the work always starts out the same.

GOMEZ: Start little by little.

STALETOVICH: And that's what's been happening in Surfside. Crews are working slowly and methodically underneath tons of unstable rubble. He says firefighters need to size up the scene and divide the labor.

GOMEZ: The engineers have to tell you what's safe and what's not. And if you get to an area that there could be a possible collapse, you have to shore that area. You have to monitor the environment for poisonous gases.

STALETOVICH: As search and rescue teams formed around the country - today there are 28 nationwide - and the bombings and building collapses and hurricanes begin to add up, Gomez says technology improved.

GOMEZ: From making shoring out of wood, you know, and two-by-fours to - now you have these intricate components that you put together. You have pneumatic, you know, airbags, and you got chisels that are - that we never saw before. You got cutting machines and the jaws units and the spreaders that are so much lighter and stronger, and they work faster.

STALETOVICH: Gomez says having to search for their own neighbors may take a toll on rescue workers in Surfside. But in the end, he says, the job is the same.

GOMEZ: It's tough watching it, but at the same time, it brings this overwhelming sense of pride in knowing that the people that you trained with and you supported for so many years are out there at the frontline and they're making a difference.

STALETOVICH: Right now they're working 12-hour shifts, and the mayor says it's been difficult to get them to take a break because they don't want to stop searching.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Staletovich in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANANA SONG, "FAST DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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