Since Sunday morning, an Israeli army search-and-rescue team has been on the ground in South Florida, assisting American first responders to comb through the tons of rubble following the collapse of the 12-story residential tower in Surfside.
More than two dozen of the building’s residents who are still unaccounted for were Jewish and had links to Israel, according to an Israeli official. After the disaster hit last Thursday, several families expressed hope the Israeli rescue team, which is renowned for skills honed in rescue operations at buildings damaged in war, would join the frantic search for survivors.
While still in Israel, the team created models to replicate the collapse of the apartment building to better understand what they would be facing. Since their arrival, the members of the Israeli team have been working 12-hour shifts at the disaster scene, where 147 people are still believed to be buried and where 18 bodies have been recovered. They have also been interviewing the victims’ families who are gathered at a nearby hotel to produce a list of people believed to have been in the building at the time of the collapse.
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The Israeli presence should not detract from the work of the American rescue crews in Surfside, Israel’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, told Haaretz on Wednesday. “I don’t think that had our team had been here from the beginning or if this had happened in Israel, the results would have been different,” he made clear. “We didn’t come to save the day or save the Americans. They are doing fantastic work and not sparing any effort or resource.”
But divergent approaches to disaster response can sometimes yield different results, he added, and the members of the Israeli team have offered their own expertise to their American counterparts in assessing the scene and the possible location of victims. While the Americans have directed rescue workers to specific spots suggested by their Israeli colleagues on a number of occasions, “it’s a consolidated effort and not two parallel efforts,” the consul general said.
Speaking to Reuters, the Israeli delegation commander, Col. Golan Vach, who has commanded his unit for four years, said the Surfside collapse was “one of the most difficult and complicated situations that I’ve ever seen.”
To prepare for the operation, Vach said the teams studied the structure of Champlain Tower South and built 3D models of the 40-year-old high-rise while still in Israel. The team then carefully replicated the manner in which the tower appeared to have collapsed to understand how to excavate the site with the highest probability of finding survivors.
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The models were created by Unit 9900 of the Israeli army’s intelligence directorate, which specializes in visual intelligence.
“We are looking for the bedrooms, because people were sleeping,” said Vach, wearing a skullcap and green army uniform with an Israeli flag patch on one sleeve. Vach’s team has consulted with the families to get the best sense of where their relatives might have been in their apartments at the time of the collapse. “Our purpose is to get the first responder to understand, where exactly is he digging?”
Minor chances, not no chances
Vach said his conversations with families have been difficult and his team was committed to being transparent with them as the possibility of finding victims alive grows slimmer.
“There are minor chances,” Vach said. “I would not say there are no chances.”
At a briefing on Wednesday, Vach’s deputy, Col. Elad Edri, told reporters that efforts to find survivors were complicated by the fact that the building collapsed in four stages, pancaking on top of itself and burying people under multiple layers of rubble. “We are mapping the population of the building’s occupants based on intelligence, similar to what we know from operations that the IDF carries out in Gaza before attacking buildings in populated and congested areas,” he said. His team has spoken with the residents’ families “to get as much information as possible about the structure and the people who were in it.”
“Apart from a description of the building, the apartment and the room, we also collect information about the people themselves, such as clothing, tattoos, special jewelry,” he said as well as even their sleeping habits. “We want to know if anyone used to sleep in front of the TV, if the children slept in the room with the parents, sleeping habits at certain hours – as many details as possible that can be learned about the conduct of the people inside the building.”
That, he said, permits rescuers to place signs in the rubble with the estimated locations of various apartments, “and where there is a particular room and who should be in that room.”
'What friendship and alliance are all about'
According to Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, who flew to Florida following the disaster, Israel’s presence at the scene reflects both Israel’s responsibility for Jewish communities abroad and its commitment to its relationship with the United States. Israeli forces are also in Florida to reciprocate American support for the Jewish state, Shai told Haaretz on Monday, saying that the Israeli humanitarian assistance is “what friendship and alliance are all about.”
“Everything should be done to save life and, if you can’t save lives, at least to save the remains so that we can bury them,” Shai added.
Reuters contributed to this report.