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First responders continue to work on healing a year after the condo building collapse in Surfside

Surfside Captain Antonio Marciante.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
Surfside Police Captian Antonio Marciante wiped away tears on June 21, 2022 as he talked about the collapse of the Champlain Towers South and its aftermath.

Surfside police released a bodycam video last August of officers who arrived minutes after the Champlain Towers South condo building collapsed. They called out to search for survivors.

"Is anybody there? Is anybody there?" the officer shouts out. "Where are you?" he says to someone who replies.

Soon we’d learn that from the rubble itself, only three people would ultimately survive. 98 people died.

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Many first responders who searched for weeks to find victims are struggling with what they saw, smelled and heard.

"We train to save lives," said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Captain Eddy Alarcon. "We do all this training in hopes that when we get there we’re gonna be able to stabilize the building in order to recover some live people." 

That weighs on Captain Alarcon.

"We recovered entire families together, and that was ... God, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever witnessed in my life," he said. "Our brother from the city of Miami who lost his child, we were all there when they recovered her body. That had to be probably one of the hardest nights."

"I’ve accepted the fact that we did help in some way. Even if we weren’t able to recover the family the way we’d like to have recovered them, we did help in being able to bring these families some comfort in knowing — hey, they have their family member."
Eddy Alarcon, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Captain

Another thing Alarcon said helps is playing music with his band of fellow firefighters. They’re called Fire Brigade. Earlier this year on March 19, the group dedicated a song called "Changes" to the victims at the 2022 Medal Day Ceremony. This event recognizes the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue members who've gone above and beyond in their work.

“It will be alright,” they sang. “It will be OK.”

They were recognized again on Friday, along with responders from throughout Florida, the U.S. and Israel. They all worked at the site under heavy rain, heat and smoke from a fire.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava acknowledged how hard that was.

"For so many of the first responders who searched the pile as if they were looking for their own loved ones, we know you, too, continue to wrestle with the memories of those days," Levine Cava said. "We remain committed to ensuring that you have the tools you need to heal and recover."

Responders are also getting support from religious leaders, like Rabbi Yossi Harlig, a chaplain with the Miami-Dade Police Department. Rabbi Harlig says his role is not about answers. He can’t know why the building collapsed. But he can listen.

"One of the biggest challenges is that people don’t want to open up," Harlig said. "But they look at me as an outsider so ... [they feel] more comfortable opening up because I’m not a paid officer. I’m a volunteer chaplain."

"June 24th will be a day that the men and women of this department will never forget," Surfside Police Captain Antonio Marciante said. He wiped away tears, talking about what it was like.

"We worked for weeks," he said. "A lot of our officers knew people in that building."

Surfside police department recently brought in a therapy dog.

Surfside Officer Mike.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
K9s for Warriors recognized Station Dog Officer Mike, a goldendoodle and retired service dog, for his positive impact on the Surfside Police Department on June 21, 2022.

"As the saying goes, without further ado — Officer Mike!" Surfside Town Manager Andy Hyatt said, followed by applause.

Officer Mike is a cream colored goldendoodle.

Captain Marciante said he sees hardened officers light up when they interact with Mike.

"I know we call him a station dog — he really has become a town dog," Marciante said, his sadness fading as he focused his thoughts on Mike instead of the events of June 24. "Many days we walk to have lunch. I can tell you if we want to have lunch at 12:30 p.m., we have to leave at 11 a.m. because we get stopped by residents and children and visitors."

The dog, the music and faith have helped. However, for some of the police and firefighters in Surfside who spent weeks searching through the rubble or assisting nearby, going back to that site is too much to bear.

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.