Miami: A Searing Search and Rescue Diary of IDF Home Front Command Delegation Leader
Col. Golan Vach recalls the chilling, two-week mission at the disaster site.
The elevator door almost closes just as a dusty military boot pushes into the crack and opens it back up again. Amnon, the head of the delegation walks in and stands next to me. On my right is a woman in a swimming costume holding a bag and a towel, and standing next to Amnon is Ronit, the mother of Ilan, one of those missing in the condominium collapse
In the microcosmos descending in the elevator are a tourist on her way to the pool, a mother waiting for her son to be rescued from the rubble of the building in Surfside, and two rescuers who have already been working for 10 days to find him. The hotel where the IDF delegation is staying also hosts the families of the missing. The reality in which we have been living is comprised of layers of life and mourning, of sadness and hope.
On Saturday June 26, 2021, two days after the collapse of the 13-story building which had left dozens of people dead in the rubble, Israel received a request for aid from the United States. The request surprised many including myself. The United States has never asked for assistance from other countries, and now it was asking Israel to send an expert delegation to help manage the disaster. At that moment, it is clear to me that we are about to become the first foreign nation to operate an aid mission on American soil, and so I choose only the best of the best for the delegation.
The operation given the name "Helping Hand" by the Home Front Command includes a 10-strong delegation of engineers, emergency population officers and rescuers from the Command's National Search and Rescue unit, together with senior officers representing the Command, and Foreign Office representative Guy Giladi. On our way to Ben Gurion Airport, Michael, the unit's architect, sends us the original plans of the building so that we can study them during the flight.
On Saturday evening we fly directly to Miami. Expectations of us are high. We have a lot of experience in disaster management, but what will the world's strongest superpower be able to learn from us? How will our rescuers work with the rescuers from the elite federal unit, Task Forces 1?
"My name is Sarah, I'm Malki's mother. She lives in apartment 212 facing the ocean. I'm so happy you're coming, she is all I have in life, please find her for me."
On the way I receive several messages from Jewish families who have heard that we are coming. They don't just want to encourage us; they want us to look for their loved ones. One of the messages reads, "My name is Sarah, I'm Malki's mother. She lives in apartment 212 facing the ocean. I'm so happy you're coming, she is all I have in life, please find her for me."
We land in the early hours of Sunday morning and put on our IDF uniforms. Maor Elbaz Starinsky, Israel's Consul General in Miami, who has only been in the job for a week, greets us and takes us to the site. The 'Pile, as the Americans call it, is an apartment building the size of a football pitch, just by the ocean. Some of the apartments are holiday apartments, while others are lived in year-round. The bottom five floors have collapsed into the garage under the building. The rest of the building is piled up seven meters high – layers of concrete, furniture, steel, pictures and books. The reason for the collapse is not clear.
A fire still burns on the north-western edge of the site. Poisonous smoke spreads out over the rubble and the firefighters try to put it out. The West wing of the building, which has not collapsed, remains standing, tall and threatening. The apartments where the rest of the building has ripped off are exposed – cupboards and beds torn in half, air conditioning units attached precariously. The danger of collapse limits us and we cannot work in the area next to the part of the building that still stands because of the danger of another collapse. The collapse of the Twin Towers on the 9/11 rescuers has left a trauma.
There are very few pockets of air remaining between the layers of the building. The local rescue teams are struggling among meters of concrete and steel. At this point we estimate that at the current pace of work in which 6 people have been found among the rubble in three days, the rescue mission will last at least a month and a half.
Becoming one with the site
Florida's TF1 and TF2 rescue units give us a hesitant reception. We feel as if no one asked them if they wanted our help, and they don't seem to know what to do with us.
We split up. My deputy, Elad Edri, takes the population officers, Tal Levi-Diamenstein and Yuval Klein, to the family center so they can prepare the intelligence infrastructure. The two engineers join up with the Americans and start to study the way the building has collapsed. Me and the three rescuers join up with the American search and rescue teams. We have come to "get our hands dirty" not just to give advice.
One of the things that is most confusing for rescuers at a disaster site is the silence. You can't hear anyone calling for help.
I know that within a few days we and the site will become one. We will know exactly where each ceiling of each floor is, and who was sitting where.
One of the things that is most confusing for rescuers at a disaster site is the silence. Rescuers at the site can't hear anyone calling for help and can't see anything amid the destruction. That's why our rescue units teach that you don't leave the site till the last of the rescuers is out. I am infused with that sense of commitment during the preliminary tour of the site and it grows stronger from the knowledge a large number of people are buried under the rubble a few meters below us, and perhaps they are alive.
IDF Lt. Col. Oz Geno working with an American rescue official at the disaster site (Golan Vach)
The local teams' rescue efforts are focused primarily on places where dogs bark. We have a different work method. The time of the collapse at 01:32 in the morning leads us to search for the missing people in the bedrooms, and from the start, we aim to reach them.
Our first challenge is to build an engineering plan of action in line with the population intelligence and to mark on maps the exact spot where those trapped were when the building collapsed. Our next challenge is to persuade the Americans to adopt our methods because this kind of surgical search significantly shortens search and rescue times.
Working conditions on the site are not easy. The half of the building that remains standing is in danger of collapse and bits of concrete and furniture fall from it every few minutes. The heat and humidity are intolerable, and once the area is hit by heavy rains, lightning storms force the rescue teams to take a break every few hours. On top of all that there is a bad smell, and mosquitoes and flies.
The local teams work quietly, quickly and professionally. Their commanders are experienced and perceptive, and the firemen themselves are tough people from all around the United States, with a strong work ethic and high technical capabilities. Their monitoring system is meticulous – entry and exit from the site are recorded via barcode and everyone that leaves the site has to clean and disinfect their shoes. Control of personnel is absolute. After just a few hours the Americans tell us that there are clear boundaries, that you cannot cross from one side of the site to the other. That of course drives the Israelis crazy.
We use the Americans' rescue equipment: saws, drills, and especially pickaxes. The work is extremely physical, and by the end of the day our muscles are sore from head to toe. The Israeli rescuers are at a very high level and don't fall from their local counterparts. "REBAR" [short for reinforcing bar – the steel wires used in reinforced concrete] is the most common cry heard throughout the day. A steel cutting tool is brought over quickly, the steel is cut and work continues. We have to wear masks with special filters all the time because of the smoke and polluting particles in the air.
The Israeli rescue team at the site (Golan Vach)
The Israeli population officers arrive at the center set up for the families of the missing. There are around 300 relatives in the hall, around half of them English speakers and the other half Spanish speakers. They are angry and in pain. They can't come to terms with the situation and hold on to the hope that their loved ones are still alive. The police have put together all of the information about missing persons. We want to get to that database in order to build intelligence, but the local police protocol forbids collaboration with external private elements.
We decide to gather all the information anew from the families. Elad, who is the head of the Haifa district as a career officer, introduces Tal and Yuval to the families. "Hi, we've come from Israel to help you, but now we need your help."
The fact that we are there gives the families enormous hope and within minutes a long queue of people are waiting to answer our questions while releasing some of their sorrow and pain. An immediate connection forms between the families and the population officer and a human language that words cannot express is formed. The families hang on to our every expression and every whisper. "What did you say just now? Was it connected to the search? Have you found someone?"
Yuval makes contact with a former federal officer who provides us with the up-to-date numbering of the apartments, according to which we begin to place the names in each apartment. Catalonia Gomez in Apartment 204. Arnie and Miryam Notkin in Apartment 302. The ruins begin to get names and faces
The race against time has begun: How quickly will precise data arrive about the number of persons trapped, their location and the characteristics of their apartments.
At the same time, at the Home Front Command offices in Ramle, Yusef Salam, head of the Information Department, and with him the information specialist and analysts of the data collection teams, together with Michael the architect, begin to analyze the mountains of information available on social media and to cross-check them with other lists. The race against time has begun: How quickly will precise data arrive about the number of persons trapped, their location and the characteristics of their apartments.
The population officers manage to obtain a detailed list of all the residents of the condominium from the concierge. They cross-reference this with the reports received from the families. At the same time, a local volunteer contacts Amazon to check who from the building had recently ordered purchases.
A well-oiled intelligence machine
Details about the residents begin to accumulate and a story starts to be constructed. In one apartment there were two men and a boy. We verify that the two men were a couple and that there is no missing woman. In Ilan and Deborah's apartment on the 8th floor, a call was made a week ago to fix the air conditioning in the bedroom. As it is impossible to survive in Miami at this time of year without air conditioning we focus our search on the apartment's second bedroom.
Within hours, the family center becomes a well-oiled intelligence machine. Every single relative strain their memory consults with other family members, checks photos and other materials on social media, uploads files to a program that we have developed. Most of all, they show great involvement in the investigation moving from passive to active, from emotion to rationale. "Sir, you don't remember now? No problem, go home, look through all the material you have and come back with more details."
Col. Golan Vach working at the disaster site on Miami (Courtesy)
Relatives of the family in Apartment 804 tell Yuval they are sure their son went down to the garage before the building collapsed and that right now, he is trapped in his white Cherokee jeep. Yuval forwards the message to me. We go down to the flooded garage and find the car but the son is not there.
Yuval tells the father what we found. To his surprise, even though he has seemingly smashed the father's illusion that his son has survived, the father hugs him in thanks, and cries emotionally
Even though he has seemingly smashed the father's illusion that his son has survived, the father hugs him in thanks, and cries emotionally
Once the rumor has spread that the Israelis check every detail and every report, we begin to receive individual requests from families to check specific apartments. The greatest fear is that their loved ones are trapped inside, deep in the darkness, crying out for help, and nobody can hear them. We make sure to respond to every request, if possible, and to describe what we have done. "We were in Apartment 304; Nobody was shouting from there."
In order to reach a deep level of familiarity with the site, I decide that we won't work 12-hour shifts, but we'll stay at the site continuously for several days. Despite the fatigue, I remain with the American commanders throughout all the shifts. Scott and Fernandez on one shift, Chris and Tony on the second shift. Hour after hour, shift after shift, day after day, a relationship of trust and understanding is built up between us
On the second night I feel for myself the energy that our forces have injected into the teams already working on the ground. After three hours in the dark, in the rain, I find myself with the American team, standing in the rain, in a trench full of mud, working to extract two people buried in a meter of concrete. Breaking up the concrete takes a long time. The team is exhausted and so am I. My legs are cramped, my gloves are torn, and with every movement I make, my spade scrapes the blister that appeared on my hand two days ago. The air is heavy and moist, my breathing is shallow under my face mask. I am gripped by a moment of despair. We have been working for eight hours on trying to extract two people trapped inside, and there are another 80 missing people to find and evacuate.
All of a sudden, Avi, who is an officer with Israel's national search-and-rescue unit, appears. He is full of energy, dressed in his olive-green uniform in between all the blue uniforms of the Americans. He gets to work giving orders and getting things moving. At that moment I kind of understand how the Jewish community felt when we arrived. Everything starts to move quickly. My breathing is a little easier and I feel that the weight on my shoulders is being shared.
After a few minutes, we are joined by Nissim, one of the most experienced people in the unit, who took part in the rescue operation in Argentina in 1994. We let the exhausted American team take a break and we extract the two dead bodies.
Col. Golan Vach with a Miami rescue official
On the same day, Nachum meticulously searches a specific patch and finds Gonzalo Torre from Apartment 912 dead in his bed. Later we look for his wife Maria. Their apartment slid over the other floors, and Maria is located somewhere else. In every place on the site, on different floors and different apartments, we find her visiting card, photos of her, letters she has written, and bank statements. It seems that Maria is everywhere and nowhere.
Within a few days my deputy Elad, becomes the hero of the families. He is cool-headed, sensitive and has a sense of humor. A close and extraordinary relationship is built between him and the head of the local station Ray Jadallah, who is the son of a family from El Bireh. His job is to be the contact person with the families, to update them on any progress and to serve as the address for complaints. Jadallah feels an enormous sense of relief when we join the effort and all the more so when we start to send daily updates from the site to the family center.
The families want to know where we are digging, if there is any chance of finding survivors alive, what does the site look like, and what methods we are using. Elad takes the difficult information from the site and delivers it in a way that is to-the-point and interesting.
Maor, the consul in Miami, and Guy, the foreign office representative, accompany us every step of the way. They tie up loose ends, arrange meetings, and sharpen messages. On aid missions, this combination between the foreign office and the defense ministry has a very powerful effect. Home Front Commander General Uri Gordin, Is in daily contact with me. Later during a trip to the United States, he will come to Miami to meet with us.
Preparing a 3D map
From the engineering perspective, we try to understand how exactly the building collapsed and where each room is in the enormous pile of rubble. The intelligence unit begins by building a 3D model that places every floor and every room in its original location and then "demolishes" the building using 3D imagery that we receive from Intelligence Unit 9900
A couple of days into our work my phone starts to vibrate. My screen fills up with photos and imagery of the site. The big pile of rubble at the end is Shaft No. 12. Malki is there, under a mountain of steel.
Living in those apartments are all beautiful people, young and old, families and single people.
The flow of information from the emergency population officers and the engineers breathes life into the place and takes it back a few days to a large and impressive condominium with beautiful vacation rooms overlooking the ocean, pictures on the walls, curtains, and photo albums. Living in those apartments are all beautiful people, young and old, families and single people.
Photos of Ilan Naibryf, an outstanding athlete, who lived with Deborah Berezdivin hang on the walls of Apartment 811 in the room with the air conditioning unit that works. Catalina Gomez's bedroom with the blue desk should be right here, at the edge of the pile of rubble, about five meters deep. This process is something magical that stuns me every time, over and again
A member of the Israeli search and rescue team, (L) salutes in front of the rubble that once was Champlain Towers during a prayer ceremony, July 7, 2021 (JAP/Miami Heraldose A Iglesias)
As time passes, we begin to see concentrations of people trapped in a number of apartments, and we understand where we need to focus the effort of the rescue teams. We wanted to go in at the same time from bottom to top, from the garage to the upper floors. We thought that would be the quickest way to get to people trapped inside, but the safety limitations are strict and we are forced to work only from the top.
At the end of the briefing on Tuesday, Tal calls me and gives me the rundown on what she thinks. She says that the original number of missing persons is 93 and not 158 as the police believe. This is a real earthquake in terms of the scope and length of the operation. "You're really something," I tell her, "You managed to rescue 65 people just by sitting in your chair. From here on, the operation goes on with two differing tallies. The official figure – 158, and the operational figure, 93.
Tal says that the original number of missing persons is 93 and not 158 as the police believe. "You're really something," I tell her, "You managed to rescue 65 people just by sitting in your chair."
At the pile, Amnon and Moti mark, in color and with flags, the axes of the building and the locations of the apartments. They add numbers and letters and the area looks like a giant chess board, and each rescuer knows at any given moment exactly where they are.
At the end of the second day, I feel that conditions have ripened to progress to the stage of proof of capabilities. I ask Scott for a rescue team and point to a specific location at the site. "That's apartment 702, Frank Kleiman should be here, in the bedroom."
The head of the American team gives me a doubting look, but brings over the equipment and gets to work. I join him, and about an hour later we find Frank, extract his body and stand exhausted by the rescue point. Meeting with death drains all one's strength.
"How do you know it's him?" asks the commander of the American team. I get into the trench and start looking for findings that will confirm it. The rain that has started to come down isn't helping. A few minutes later, I find a scrap of paper between the mattress and the wall. Written on it is: 'User: Fkleiman 3353010785. It's Frank's Wifi password. The look on the commander's face changes.
Other teams come down to see what's going on. Amnon points to another location, three meters higher up, and says to the teams. "Dig here, there should be a 16-year-old disabled boy who lives with mother." The two teams get energetically to work and a few minutes later they find the wheel of a wheelchair. It takes a few hours to find the bodies of the boy and his mother.
At this point in time, after three days, the Israeli are in demand. Scott stands next to me, strong, tall and taciturn. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says: "Let's get everyone out of here." The next shift will find five missing persons, the one after that six, and after that seven. None of them are alive.
On Wednesday, reinforcements arrive from Israel. Five officers from the regular division get to work with a spark in their eyes. Jino, Tzabari, Ori, Madmoni and Hollander join Nachum, Nissim, Avi and Avi, and get to work with the local teams. I notice that in every shift there is a certain tension that originates in the desire of our rescuers to work a little differently. We want to get inside with a tunnel, the Americans don't like the idea because of safety issues. We look for flexibility in transition from point to point, the Americans prefer clearly defined missions with fixed sectors throughout the shift. Hours of talks through the night lead to the coming shifts being more fruitful. I feel that they are giving us room for our creativity, and we are respectful of their order and organization.
Members of the IDF's Rescue Unit are given a send off by search and rescue personnel in Surfside, July 10, 2021 (AFP/nna Moneymaker)
I develop a relationship with Scott Dean from TF2 and Chris Martindale from TF1. In the long hours throughout the night (with Chris) and the days (with Scott), sometimes in very difficult situations, we talk about life and death, about the heroism of the rescuers. For the American teams, the mission is very tough because they are familiar with the community. Expectations of them are very high and I try to take some of the weight off them.
The families are seeing for the first time the ruins of what was a vacation condo. The blood curdling screams are for their loved ones, buried under the rubble.
On Wednesday, while we are working at the site, we suddenly hear terrible screams. Relatives of the missing persons, accompanied by police, have come to the gardens of an adjacent building that look over the site. The families are seeing for the first time the ruins of what was a vacation condo. The blood curdling screams are for their loved ones, buried under the rubble. "Anastasia, we are here, keep breathing and don't lose hope!" "Dad!!! We're going to get you." Many of them have dropped to their knees and are holding their arms up to the skies in prayer.
After a few days working with the firefighter teams, we notice that one of them looks different. He is wearing civilian clothes and working silently and quickly. It turns out that he is a senior firefighter from Florida, looking for his daughter and other members of the Cattarossi family who were buried under the rubble of Apartment 501. His colleagues are desperately trying to help him find her. Our intelligence shows that the apartment is in a different location to where they are digging and we move the works there.
A day later, the firefighter's team find his daughter and her mother – his ex-wife. The final stage of the rescue is a moving and emotional moment. We leave the trench and let the firefighters work alone. His friends, all experienced, veteran firefighters, go in to extract the girl and her mother from the mesh of steel and concrete. Four firefighters from the rescue team spread a blue curtain over the workstation as a canopy to keep the bodies out of sight of the crowds. A firefighter's shirt covers the girl and I make out the American flag on the sleeve that covers her mouth. The firefighters, some of them from other parts of town, line up in two long columns, waiting for the final extraction which takes longer than expected. For a whole long hour, some 500 firefighters and Home Front Command soldiers stand in two silent columns, holding their helmets in their hands.
At these moments, I feel the greatness of America in the respect they give to the dead, and we are their brothers and partners in these momentous moments. When the girl is taken out, one of the American officers shouts out an order from the end of the column, and everyone stands at attention and salutes.
For a whole long hour, some 500 firefighters and Home Front Command soldiers stand in two silent columns, holding their helmets in their hands.
When the stretcher passes by, everyone cries and salutes. The girl's father walks ahead of the stretcher, carried by his close friends to the evacuation point, where he hugs all the firemen. When he gets to Avi Gabai, one of our rescuers, he embraces him firmly and says, "We found her thanks to you." The firemen who are with the father recall how they dug for days without knowing the girl's precise location – until we came along. When I heard that, I thought to myself there is only one thing worse than finding your daughter dead, and that's not finding her at all.
Amnon takes it on himself to find the rest of the Cattaroussi family, and the following day he exposes the bedrooms and living room and we extract the three remaining members of the family. Later, the mother's sister calls Amnon and asks to give her deep thanks to him for bringing her closure.
Fatigue takes its toll
Despite the many invitations we receive from the wonderful Jewish community in Miami, we decided to bring in our first sabbath in the U.S. with the families themselves. After a shower that doesn't manage to wash off the fatigue, I head down to the lobby of our hotel. Dozens of families are here, most of them Jewish.
That morning I had told CNN in an interview that in view of that fact that the building had collapsed in such a compressed manner, and the time that had passed since the collapse, the chances of finding anyone alive were close to zero. So, without words, these moments are when the families say farewell to any hope of finding their loved ones alive.
Malki's mother, Sarah walks up to me. "What's happening with my daughter? You've found everyone but her."
"She's at the bottom of the pile, it's impossible to get there," I explain to her.
"But you Israelis can do anything, why can't you get to my Malki?"
I try to clear the lump in my throat that is choking me. "There are professional teams working very hard to reach her," I barely manage to say. "We will do all we can, I promise."
We light candles with the families. Each family lights two candles, and adds another one for each relative we are searching for. The tray is full of light. Ori, the population officer from the regular division, moves us all with his singing of the Friday night prayers. When he sings Yedid Nefesh, many of those present shed tears.
By the end of the first week, we have extracted 33 bodies, there are another 63 left to find. Over the weekend, additional search and rescue teams arrive from all over the United States. On Monday we decide to send part of the delegation home and to remain with a professional core of seven people. Our planned day of return is on Thursday, but delays to work, due to preparations for the controlled explosion of the wing still standing, lead the defense minister to extend our stay for another three days, until Sunday.
We've been on our feet for a week, working nonstop, almost without sleep. The complete destruction weighs on us like a layer of concrete, and the constant meetings with death are oppressive.
Fatigue begins to take its toll. We have been on our feet for a week, working nonstop, almost without sleep. The heat and humidity make you sweat profusely. The complete destruction weighs on us like a layer of concrete, and the constant meetings with death are oppressive.
Things are no less difficult for the population officers. It is important for them to be in constant contact with the families, but these meetings drain their energy. It's hard to embrace someone in the evening, when shortly before you have found the body of the person they are looking for, yet they still don't know. We decide to cut down on the number of meetings and to brief the families only once a day, instead of twice.
We always make sure to take a shower at the end of each shift, then dinner and a daily debriefing. The Hatzalah organization has provided us with a big airconditioned room next to the site and filled it with equipment, food and cold drinks. The Yedidim organization sends us meals. The room becomes a refuge for us, and the members of Hatzalah and Yedidim become our human support envelope. They treat us fantastically, they take care of our every need and become an island of sanity in this harsh place.
Flowers and messages of love adorn wooden hearts with the names of victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, July 12, 2021 (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)
On Thursday, the members of the delegation take a break of a few hours and go shopping. This interval is crucial for returning to sanity.
On Monday July 5, the Americans decide to demolish what is left of the structure. Work is halted and federal engineering units come in to prepare the structure for explosion. It is clear to us that after the demolition that site will be fully opened for work and we decide to use the time to build a detailed plan on how to simultaneously reach all of those still trapped, taking advantage of the large amount