County first responders assist in recovery efforts at the site of a condo collapse

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HANCOCK COUNTY – An hour before starting another noon to midnight shift in the difficult rescue and recovery operation in Surfside, Fla., Brandon Kleine was preparing to put fatigue aside and continue a mission of darker and darker.

Sugar Creek Township Fire Chief Kleine is part of an Indiana USAR Task Force 1 first responder team that left on Thursday July 1 to assist at the site of the Champlain Towers collapse . Three other Hancock County first responders – including one of the group’s leaders – worked 12 hours during the heat of the day, meticulously clearing the rubble and looking for any signs of life.

Fourteen days after the condominium tower collapsed in the middle of the night, that possibility was becoming increasingly unlikely, officials said. But the goal of the Indiana team and hundreds of other rescue workers is to reunite families still searching for loved ones. The death toll from the collapse rose to 54 on Wednesday, July 7, when rescue teams discovered eight more bodies. Dozens of people remain missing.

“I’m not going to lie; it’s a mess, but we’re on a noble mission, ”Kleine said. “We want to put an end to some of these families and give them back their loved ones. “

The Indiana team also includes Sugar Creek Township Firefighter Jeff Keithley and Beth Haggard of the Greenfield Fire Territory. The team is led by Jay Settergren, a resident of Hancock County, Battalion Commander for the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Settergren, the training coordinator for Indiana Task Force 1, said the deployment had been difficult.

“It’s very physically demanding, working on the rubble heap,” Settergren said by phone Tuesday (July 6), during a break from the delicate excavation work.

Knowing what is likely in the pile of sprayed concrete and twisted rebar also takes its toll.

“You are hopeful that you will find someone who is successful, but we haven’t had success in the last few days, and while we are optimistic, it is heavy on our people,” Settergren said. No one has been rescued since the early hours after the 1:30 a.m. collapse on June 24.

The 80-strong Indiana team is one of five FEMA teams at the scene. Recovery efforts continue around the clock. They were only interrupted by the weather – the storm named Elsa dealt a searing blow – and the decision to bring down the rest of the complex that had remained standing when the structure collapsed. the base of the 12-story tower apparently gave way. Most of the residents were asleep.

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Kleine said. “You’re talking about a collapsed tower in the middle of the night that contained several people who had no warning that this was going to happen.”

Settergren, who said his team is made up of some of the best rescue workers in the United States, admitted that no training can really prepare a first responder for this type of mission.

“There are 28 of these FEMA teams that complete over 15,000 hours of training each year in addition to our regular duties, so while we have technically minded lifeguards who are there to do their best, it’s a huge task when you shoot something like that, ”Settergren said.

The weather was a factor. Daytime temperatures reached the upper 90s, associated with high humidity. Showers dropped to 2 inches of rain and operations were halted due to lightning in the area.

“We work really long hours under very stressful conditions, and that’s a lot to put on people,” Settergren said.

Indiana Task Force 1 posted photos of the Indiana team climbing mounds of debris at the scene earlier this week. Although heavy equipment is used, much of the debris is removed by hand.

The Indiana team’s mission – which could be in Florida for up to 21 days or more – went from rescue to recovery on Wednesday after authorities told sobbing relatives there was no way anyone was still alive in the rubble.

“It doesn’t matter what they call it,” Kleine said before the announcement. “We’re here to give people back to their families, and I don’t think anyone on our team is considering leaving until this job is done. “

Kleine and other local first responders, who deal with life and death on a regular basis, said work at such a catastrophic level was grueling, but he and members of the Indiana team are ready to do it. make.

“God hasn’t given me a lot of talent, but I’m ready for it and I’m lucky because I’m surrounded by other first responders who feel the same way,” he said.

Kleine is a staging agent for the day shift in charge of covering the area of ​​the collapse. His job is to make sure all team members working 12-hour shifts stay hydrated and rested to avoid injury.

The work became more complex with new debris after the demolition of the section still standing on Sunday evening. But the demolition appears to have accelerated the rate of recovery of more deceased victims.

Rescuers were able to find their way into parts of the underground garage. They were also able to start excavations in parts of the site that were previously inaccessible.

Kleine said the local Surfside community has embraced their efforts, donating food and thanking them as they travel to and from the site every day.

“You hate to see what happened here because it’s such a big community,” Kleine said.

Pour Kleine, who has given up on celebrating his 42nd birthday with his family and tickets to see the Reds and Cubs play baseball, said it was okay with the task at hand.

“I would give up everything in a second to help others,” he said. {pre style = “overflow-wrap: break-word; white space: pre-wrap;”} {/ pre}


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