SPECIAL COVERAGE: Searching for a Miracle in Surfside

surfside collapse
Workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Just after 1:20 a.m. Thursday, a Hatzalah of South Florida dispatcher was manning the phones when he received a call from a person experiencing chest pains after hearing what sounded like an explosion at a building nearby.

At 2:00 a.m. Thursday, Dovie Katz, coordinator of Chesed Shel Emes in Florida, was asleep in his North Miami Beach home when he received a call from a community member about the Surfside collapse.

At 2:15 a.m. Thursday, Mark Rosenberg, director of Chesed Shel Emes in Florida and a police chaplain, was sleeping in his North Miami Beach home when he received a call from Dovie Katz that there was a potential mass-casualty event in Surfside.

Shortly after 4:00 a.m. Thursday, Rabbi Moshe Matz — director of Agudath Israel of Florida, member of Hatzalah of South Florida Rabbinical Board, and rav of Aventura Shul — was preparing to daven vasikin when he heard about a building collapse in nearby Surfside.

The lives of residents and community leaders of this picturesque area of South Florida — of green-blue oceans and white sandy beaches, of swaying palm trees and boat-filled bays, of year-round sunny skies and water sports — were shattered early Thursday morning, as a large section of the 12-story condominium Champlain Towers South on famed Collins Avenue on the Atlantic Ocean crumbled to a heap, setting off crushing trauma and indefinite angst and anguish for families seeking answers about their loved ones.

As of Tuesday, 12 bodies had been recovered (in addition to DNA matter), and 149 people are still unaccounted for. Some people in the intact portion of the building were able to leave on their own; 35 had to be rescued by fire officials.

Two people — Stacie Fang and her son Jonah Handler — were pulled alive from the rubble several hours after the collapse. Fang passed away the next night. Handler remains the only person to have survived the wreckage.

At least five Jewish deaths have been confirmed: Fang; Leon Oliwkowicz and his wife Rus Oliwkowicz; Frank Kleiman; and Michael David Altman. Dozens of Jews are among the missing.

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Joseph Dahan, co-founder of South Florida Hatzalah, speaking with Hamodia on Sunday afternoon outside a center for grieving families in Surfside.

When the call from the individual experiencing chest pains came into Hatzalah dispatch, “we treated it like a regular call,” says Joseph Dahan, a founding member of Hatzalah of South Florida, speaking with Hamodia Sunday afternoon outside the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside, one of two centers where grieving families have gathered for the past few days.

When Hatzalah units responded, they immediately saw the source of the “explosion” sound nearby that the caller had described: the collapsed Champlain Towers.

“Our dispatch quickly upgraded the call to a mass casualty and started waking a lot of people up,” says Dahan. “Miami-Dade Fire Rescue was using aerial ladders in order to evacuate individuals from balconies in the portion of the building that was still standing. And they were evacuating additional people from the next door building as well. We had set up a field clinic nearby to triage patients. And we were triaging them as they were coming out.” Hatzalah dealt with dozens of patients that night.

Among the tragic stories, there were also miraculous ones.

One woman in the building heard rumbling and went to report it to the security guard, who responded that no maintenance people were available at that hour. The woman immediately called her son and told him to leave the apartment with his sister; they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, moments before the towers crumbled.

Another man was reading in bed and felt something shake; as he fled his apartment, he heard a woman trying to get out of her own unit but the door was jammed. He forced it open, freeing her, and they both hurried out, just before tragedy struck so many of their neighbors.

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A massive chessed operation would be needed for survivors, those buried in the rubble, and their families, and Jewish organizations in Florida, across the country, and around the world quickly mobilized.

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Surfside victim Leon Oliwkowicz, a”h, seen here in 2019 at a hachnasas sefer Torah for a scroll he donated in 2019 to the Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago. (Chabad.org/News)

“Just a little while after I found out about the collapse, I started getting calls,” says Rabbi Moshe Matz, speaking with Hamodia from the shul in his home in the Aventura Lakes community, shortly before Minchah on 17 Tammuz, one of the rare quiet moments he has had in the past few days. “I got a call from a very chashuve Rav in Lakewood about the couple that’s missing. I got calls from people from South America that have family in the building.

“People from Mexico called. I got call after call after call from people — they don’t know too many people here in Florida. So they just call the number that they have or they call the Agudah number, asking, ‘Who can we call? How can we get information?’”

And people started sending Rabbi Matz pictures of missing relatives, asking, “Let us know if you see her.”

“It was very emotional, and very difficult,” Rabbi Matz continues. “Oftentimes, it was just trying to give people chizuk and say, ‘When I find out something, I’ll get back in touch with you.’ They were just calling, I think, everybody and anybody they could try to call and get some information, because everything was chaotic. I made a conscious decision not to go to ‘ground zero.’ I think it was important that only the people that could do something about it that day be there. But I was in touch with Hatzalah, who was there — they had a tremendous effort around the clock to have people present.”

Even the luckier families, who got out alive, were rendered homeless with nothing but the clothing they were wearing.

The woman who got out with her son and daughter (her husband was away at the time) “was roaming the streets for hours, literally,” Rabbi Matz says. “She didn’t even have a credit card, so she couldn’t go to a hotel. She didn’t know what to do until finally somebody said, ‘I will check you into a hotel.’ You had people that were lost, and they were confused. Nobody knew what was going on.”

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Rabbi Moshe Matz, director of Agudath Israel of Florida and member of Hatzalah of South Florida’s rabbinical board, speaking with Hamodia Sunday evening at his shul in Aventura.

Rabbi Matz helped other families get hotel rooms and arrange for other needs.

Hatzalah got a doctor to help those who had left prescription medication in their apartments to obtain new prescriptions.

A massive relief effort was coordinated at The Shul in Bal Harbour, under the leadership of Rabbi Shalom Lipskar, located just a few blocks north of the Champlain Towers.

Shul members began helping place people in hotel rooms, and arranging for those with winter homes in the area to allow the now-homeless families to live there. And a portion of The Shul’s large complex was turned into a massive supply center for all those affected by the disaster, with people donating every conceivable item to those in need: mattresses, bedding, toiletries, clothing, shoes, diapers, masks, sanitizers, food, water.

One volunteer, Jonathan Zinguer, who lives near The Shul, walked in Sunday afternoon and asked, “What can I do to help?”

Zinguer said he has a close friend, lan Naibryf, who lived in Champlain and is still unaccounted for, “and I’m trying to do everything in my power to make things right.” Zinguer is trying “to spread positivity, and kind of hope for a miracle for whoever is still stuck down there,” while quietly acknowledging, “It’s hard to be hopeful at this point.”

As is typical with mass-casualty incidents, authorities set up “family reunification centers” at the Surfside Community Center and Grand Beach Hotel Surfside. Generally, these centers are created as places where survivors can reunite with their loved ones. But as the days wore on and the prospect of survivors grew ever dimmer, these locations turned into centers for grieving and comfort, and where officials could at least update the relatives on the progress of the search, and people could receive trauma care from professionals.

“It’s very, very intense in there,” Dahan described. “Families are grieving. Families are having a very difficult time. They’re starting to do a little bit of notifications to certain individuals. That’s what we’re dealing with right now.

“Obviously, it’s a very, very emotionally distraught time for these individuals. When that’s taking place, that’s really very intense. We have doctors, we have paramedics, we have EMTs, nurses, all standing by, as well as psycho-trauma specialists, and we’re providing the support services as necessary.”

Meanwhile, rescue crews worked around the clock to remove massive debris and try to locate the living and the dead. Exhausted rescue workers rested under a tent as shifts ended, immediately replaced by others. Hatzalah is maintaining a presence at the scene of the disaster — in addition to remaining hopeful about treating survivors, they are constantly dealing with rescue workers suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. (An outdoor assignment under the Florida summer heat and humidity on a fast day can be tough for a reporter — but not nearly as rough as for the crews working on what they hope is a lifesaving mission.)

Back at the reunification centers, as the days wore on, without survivors and with few bodies removed from the rubble, tensions began mounting, with some feeling that the rescue operation was inadequate.

While hardly anyone, including the first responders, has had experience in dealing with scenes this disastrous, people who spoke with Hamodia say that rescue crews and elected officials are working around the clock under these tragic circumstances, mindful of the need to search quickly but safely.

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Hatzalah and IDF personnel near the scene of the collapse.

“Constantly being at the scene, I think they did an absolutely phenomenal job,” says Mark Rosenberg, the CSE Florida director. Rosenberg and Dovie Katz, the CSE Florida coordinator, are sitting in this reporter’s Miami Beach hotel suite at 2 a.m. Monday, this interview a brief breather from days of brutal work; they estimate having slept a total of fewer than 25 hours between them in the 96 hours since they were the first two CSE members at the scene of the collapse.

“I don’t think they could have done anything better,” says Rosenberg.

Rabbi Matz, likewise, says that since no one really has experience with such situations, “we can’t pass judgment” on the work of the rescuers.

“In the beginning of a chaos like this, there’s a bit of lack of communication between the different departments of a city, police and fire rescue, local governments, county government, state government,” he says. “There were those bumps in the road, but they quickly worked hard to try to get what was necessary on the scene as quickly as possible.”

Having visited the location of the collapse on Sunday, Rabbi Matz says, “I saw the Fire Rescue on scene, really in numbers, and in equipment and in manpower, really working hard to do things properly and right. You also don’t want them coming in there with bulldozers, and just pulling everything to the side. Because you have bodies. You have human remains. They had to balance that with the concern of what could potentially collapse on them.”

“There are a lot of factors. Yes, of course, we would want immediately to have all the answers. But this is a catastrophe that’s hard to even imagine.”

As the feeling inside the reunification center turned, for some, from shock into rage, family members began asking for the Israeli Defense Forces, which has experience dealing with disasters around the world, to assist officials in Surfside. Both the IDF and local officials quickly complied. (United Hatzalah in Israel also sent a psycho-trauma team to assist relatives of the missing.)

Florida officials welcomed the IDF delegation. And Rosenberg says IDF personnel he spoke with said that local rescue officials are using all appropriate measures in searching through the rubble.

***

On Sunday afternoon, families at the reunification center, at their own request, were taken by bus to view the site of the collapse itself. (As they left the centers to go onto the buses, some reporters nearby hustled over to film and photograph the grieving people headed to what is likely the burial site of their relatives. Hamodia did not engage in this particular journalistic enterprise.)

Rosenberg and Katz say this visit by the families to the site had a profound impact on the families’ attitude and outlook: When they saw firsthand the massive pile of rubble that rescuers are digging through, they realized what the rescue teams are facing, and no longer blamed officials for a slow response. Moreover, the reality began to set in that the likelihood of finding survivors was extremely slim.

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Chesed Shel Emes of Florida director Mark Rosenberg (L) and coordinator Dovie Katz, speaking with Hamodia in this reporter’s Miami Beach hotel suite early Monday morning.

Visiting the site “was very comforting for the families,” Katz says. “And you saw that the mood at the reunification center afterward had changed. People were calmer. They were asking more serious questions. There was no more rage. People became appreciative and got a real picture of what was going on.”

“And tonight,” says Rosenberg, “we started to get a lot of questions about the DNA [identifying process]. There weren’t so many questions about [the possibility of] survivors.”

Rosenberg recalls one particularly heartbroken family. A young man whose father was missing initially resisted visiting the collapse site with the other relatives; eventually, Rosenberg took the man and his mother to the site. At first, the family’s questions were indicated their belief that their loved one was alive: How quickly could rescuers shore up the pile? How soon can they get the man out? The woman had wanted a megaphone: “I want my husband to hear me.” But after the visit to the site, Rosenberg says, the questions focused more on, “I hope he did not suffer. Do you think he felt any pain?”

Asked if he is explicitly trying to tell families to expect the worst, Rosenberg quickly replies, “I would never say that.”

“It’s still a search-and-rescue operation. And we’re never going to tell somebody give up your hope, give up your bitachon. People should believe what they want to believe.

“Our job is to accommodate the family — whatever their needs are — and let them come to whatever terms they want to come to.”

Chesed Shel Emes has members constantly at the collapse scene, to immediately deal with kavod hameis issues as bodies and DNA are recovered. Additionally, many CSE members are at the reunification centers, to assist and help counsel grieving relatives. Dr. Norman Blumenthal, OHEL’s Director of Trauma, Bereavement and Crisis Response Team, has been contributing his expertise, counseling relatives of the missing as well as Chesed Shel Emes members themselves.

The Jewish community has been hit particularly hard by the tragedy. There are approximately 40 Jews among the missing, according to Rosenberg. Many are members of The Shul at Bal Harbour. Rabbi Lipskar himself has been constantly shuttling between The Shul and the reunification centers, coordinating the relief effort and giving chizuk to families.

One of those missing, Dr. Brad Cohen, is a former member of Rabbi Matz’s shul, who had since moved to Surfside.

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Some of the supplies donated for people left homeless following the Surfside collapse, at The Shul of Bal Harbour.

“Whoever we talk to, everybody knows somebody in the building,” says Rosenberg. “Jewish, not Jewish, from the police department, politicians, this one had a cousin, this one had a nephew. Everybody’s got people in the building.”

CSE of Florida, as with its chapters across the country, is known for at times having to do gruesome work. But the coordinator and director say the Surfside Collapse is the most difficult job they have ever undertaken.

When CSE members come to a scene, typically the tragedy has already occurred: A person has passed away, and a cleanup is required. But the present situation is incomparable.

“Our members are sitting right now 20 feet away from the pile of rubble,” says Rosenberg. “You watch the pile being moved, bunk beds, high chairs, clothes. That’s somebody’s bedroom. That’s somebody’s bed. And then the [search] dog gets a hit. And everybody’s watching. And all of a sudden, you see remains. One person at the site said, ‘That’s my father’s jacket on the back of his chair; that’s his office.’ And you watch this real-life horror movie for an eight-hour shift. They slowly watch how an entire pile is being taken apart, knowing that as the pile is getting lower and lower and lower, at some point, you’re going to find something.

“This visual experience of watching the horror develop, versus coming to a scene after the fact, is what makes this so traumatic for the CSE members.”

And while Chesed Shel Emes’ work always includes the difficult task of notifying people about tragedies involving their loved ones, the CSE members have never dealt with this sort of situation: a building collapse, with so many relatives just anxiously waiting and waiting and waiting.

“The magnitude of this trauma, something on this scale, is something we have never dealt with,” Katz says. “Parkland was a pretty gruesome scene, there were six Jewish deceased. But it was a two-day process. There was a shooting, they released the bodies, we went to the medical examiner, did kavod hameis, and they had funerals. Here, this is going to be weeks and potentially months.”

“And it’s the unknown, which, for the families, is the worst.”

The CSE members themselves have been more traumatized than at any other event.

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Workers search the rubble, Monday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In the past, members have gotten counseling as needed. “We had a child suicide, and the members took it very hard,” Katz says. “And we had a conference call with Rav Dovid Cohen, who gave the members encouragement.

“We’ve also had sessions in the past with Dr. Blumenthal,” says Rosenberg, “but we always find ourselves doing it l’achar hama’aseh.” All CSE members in Surfside will see Dr. Blumenthal, and Rosenberg says the organization will make counseling more of a focal point in the future — both for members themselves, and in dealing with relatives of the deceased.

The CSE leaders say the notion that first responders are immune to the gruesomeness of their work is a fallacy.

“I think Mark put it best when he was speaking to a few officers,” Katz says. “He explained to them that they signed up for this job because they want to help people — because they have a heart. But it is because they have that heart that they take it so personally, and it affects them so deeply.”

On Tuesday, a group of CSE members came down from New York, to provide relief for the Florida team that had worked almost continuously for five days.

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Despite this latest in a string of tragedies, the community is taking comfort in the massive mobilization and achdus.

“We’ve seen people really stepping up to the plate,” Rabbi Matz says, “the community galvanized, the community around the world working, getting together, understanding that we’re all affected by this.”

“The chessed has been amazing,” Katz says. “Friday afternoon right before Shabbos, they were rolling wagons and carts with Shabbos food for the people in the centers. It was too much food. We had to turn some away. They filled a 10-foot wide hallway coming from the elevator to the conference room.

“And someone walked in it yesterday with a bag of 30 activated phones, if anybody needs a phone.”

Rosenberg adds, “A Fire Rescue lieutenant called me today and said, ‘Mark, we have a problem. We have way too much food, way too many volunteers, way too many therapists.’ Someone at the Grand Beach trauma center called me and said, ‘We have more therapists than people'” who might need therapy.

And Torah Jews have always understood that they cannot always understand.

“While the reasons for Hashem’s actions are sometimes beyond us,” Agudath Israel of America said in a statement, “how we respond to them defines us.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com