Ocala firefighter reflects on recent Surfside collapse mission

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Posted July 9, 2021 | By Joel Bronson, joel@ocalagazette.com

Marion County Fire Rescue Chief James Banta, right, welcomes firefighter members of Task Force 8 as they arrived from South Florida after spending a week helping in the search and rescue efforts at the Surfside condominium collapse. [Submitted]

Task Force 8 arrived at the aftermath of the Surfside condominium collapse in South Florida just after midnight on June 28.

Despite the time, the scene was a bevy of activity as rescue teams from around the country and the world helped look for survivors after the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building on June 24.

About 12 hours later, Richie Lietz, Battalion Chief with Ocala Fire Rescue, and about 30 others from OFR, Marion County Fire Rescue and Gainesville Fire Rescue got right to work. For the next week, they were on 12-hour shifts, noon to midnight. They’d rest about every two hours to drink water and eat.

Richie Lietz [Submitted]

“There were no days off. We were working around the clock with other teams unless there was lightning in the area or structural concerns for the workers,” Lietz said.

Every so often, everything – the machines, the rescue works, the search dogs – would stop. The area would fall silent, and all would listen for anything that could be a sign of life.

Stops would also occur if shifts in the building were detected. In the event of a shift, teams were pulled off the site for their safety.

At one point, the disaster hit close to home when the body of an area firefighter’s relative was found in the debris.

The crews working the scene stopped, formed a line and saluted as the remains were removed.

Crews slept nearby in tents and were provided onsite debriefings so they could talk through their experience. Post-deployment, team members are provided with debriefing and peer counseling as well.

Task Force 8 returned home on July 4.

“The crews were awesome. Everyone gave everything they had. I am extremely proud of everyone who gave their blood, sweat and tears to this recovery effort,” Lietz said. “There were teams from Israel and Mexico.”

There are eight task force teams in Florida, each specialized in Urban Search and Rescue (USAR).

“All eight Florida USAR teams were deployed to Miami, the first time that has happened,” Lietz said.

Members of the USAR task forces are trained in confined space, trench and structural collapse rescue, and members can operate heavy machinery.

The death toll in the collapse of the Miami-area condo building rose to 78 on Friday as recovery workers toiled for a 16th day to find victims in the rubble. Another 62 people remain unaccounted for.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the work to recover victims was “moving forward with great urgency” to bring closure to the families of victims who have spent an agonizing two weeks waiting for news.

Rescue workers continue to perform the physically and emotionally taxing work amid the oppressive heat and in dangerous conditions.

“We know that there will be long-term impacts for the teams on the front line,” Levine Cava said. “They have given so much of themselves in these first two weeks.”

Task Force 8 could be called for a second deployment.

“There is a chance we may get called back,” Lietz said. “I hope they don’t stop (rescue and recovery efforts) until they’re sure the job is done.”

For updates on search and rescue efforts, follow @MiamiDadeFire and @MiamiDadePD on Twitter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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