MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Battalion Chief Carlos Perez was clearing a house fire just down the street from Florida International University when the call came in.
A newly erected pedestrian bridge across Southwest Eighth Street at 109th Avenue had collapsed. People were hurt. Others possibly trapped beneath the rubble.
Perez was stunned.
“I had just travelled down that road maybe fifteen minutes earlier,” he said. “We had units taking that route to go to that house fire.”
As Perez sped to the collapse, the first units were already calling for additional help.
“I arrived on scene at just about the 3 minute mark, soon enough to where the smoke had barely settled, the dust had barely settled,” said Perez, who has been with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue for fifteen years. “When I arrived we had quite a few people on the mound, trying to help those that were trapped.”
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said he too was taken aback by the scene.
“It takes your breath away when you first arrive and you think there is going to be a lot of injuries and fatalities here,” he said.
Perez, along with fellow battalion chiefs Ray Jadallah, Brandon Webb and Jason Richards, took the lead in the coordinating the search for victims under the pile of concrete and twisted rebar.
All four men are part of the department’s elite Urban Search and Rescue Team. Webb oversees the USRT while Richards is in charge of the Technical Rescue Team.
In their first and only interview since the March 15 disaster that left six people dead and nearly a dozen injured, they described their efforts to save those under the 950-ton span.
“A lot was going on in that first 30 minutes,” said Jadallah. “Victims are being treated. We did have a large crowd. We’ve got numerous individuals that are trying to assist also. Most of them were just on the outside offering assistance to those outside of the pile.”
For Richards and Webb the focus turned to those who might be trapped.
“We’re thinking rescue at that point,” Richards said. “We are there to find and rescue people. That’s why we go. That’s why what we’re here for. That’s our number one goal all the time. And this was no different.”
As Webb and Richards took the lead in devising ways to search under the pile, Downey knew there was a potential for even more fatalities.
“This was incredibly dangerous,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of support except for the vehicles it was resting on.”
“If we try to move something it could cause a shift and have another catastrophic event,” agreed Richards. “Obviously we’re trying to avoid that. So that’s what’s going through our minds.”
Exclusive Drone Footage Taken By Miami-Dade Fire Rescue
Quickly the teams worked their way along the structure, drilling holes looking for gaps – or voids – where a person might still be alive.
“The first couple of holes that we drilled, there were no voids,” Richards explained. “They drilled through the bridge structure until they hit road and realized there were no voids.
They moved along the fallen span, systematically drilling additional holes while the search and rescue dogs began roaming the pile. They use two types of dogs – so-called “live dogs,” which search for living victims, and “HR” or “human remain dogs,” that find the dead.
“It wasn’t long until the [live] dogs started alerting,” Richards said.
When they were asked if they believe anyone was alive under the pile, the four battalion chiefs take a long pause.
“There is no way for us to know,” Richards finally answers. “We are always going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. And do the best we can to gain access to them as fast as possible and that’s what we did.”
Added Perez: “What we do know is, it is very difficult to make that decision to discontinue the search for live victims.”
After installing wooden braces and jacks, some crews crawled into the small openings, praying the tons of concrete above them didn’t shift. In other areas, when the drilling found gaps from where the cars were located, they inserted cameras to look for signs of life. But it was clear the victims were dead. Nevertheless they pressed on.
“Even after the dogs stopped alerting we still gave it a good fight and try,” Perez said.
Eight hours after the collapse, Downey made the decision to move from rescue to recovery.
“We’re trained to rescue people,” Downey said. “This is what we do and it’s the hardest part of our job to realize that there may be people that we can’t rescue.”
Once the decision is made to stop looking for survivors, the crews shift their focus.
“We try everything we can to rescue victims from beneath the pile,” Webb said. “And ultimately when we determine that they are not viable then we turn to trying to do the best we can for the families to recover loved ones in a dignified manner.”
“Our job’s not done until we finish the job,” added Richards. “And part of that job is making sure to give these families some closure.”
It would take nearly three days to remove the trapped cars with the bodies of the victims inside. After each car was pulled out, they were covered with a tarp as the firefighters took a moment of silence so a chaplain could pray over the remains.
“The situation, as terrible as it was, certainly could have been a lot worse,” noted Richards. “The fact that traffic was light and FIU was out for break, the Youth Fair hadn’t started yet.”
All four men said this mission felt different because it wasn’t taking place in another country – but here where they live.
“One of the first things that goes through your mind is where is your family?” Richards said. “Are they safe?”
“I think it makes it personal,” Webb said. “We like to think that it doesn’t affect us. We’re professional responders and emergencies are what we do but I can tell you I’ll never drive by there without thinking about it.”
“I went home, I got my kids ready for school. I spoke to my wife. I told her I loved her,” Perez said. “We discussed how precious life is and it can be taken away from you in an instant. And this just reinforced that.”