By- Hadas Rucham
On Thursday afternoon, June 24th, Israel received the tragic news coming from Surfside, Florida regarding the collapse of the Champlain tower. Details of the collapsed building on Collins Ave quickly spread. The twelve-story condo complex had collapsed in the middle of the night, trapping its residents, many of whom were asleep, inside. The building housed a number of Jewish families, causing the news to travel at light speed to Israel.
Israel, being too familiar with large-scale tragedies, responded almost instantly. After a weekend of preparations, Israel began sending delegations and special units to Miami. One unit, fully equipped with technology and tools developed by the IDF used to locate survivors in the rubble. Another team that made its way to Surfside on Saturday night on the same plane was United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Unit (PCRU).
In partnership with El-Al airline company, the six-member team from the PCRU made their way to the Surfside community, to help provide psychological and emotional stabilization and counseling in the wake of the tragedy. Along with them came Lucy, one of the PCRUs therapy dogs.
In cooperation with local organizations, the Psychotrauma unit was led to a hotel, where survivors and family members gathered. Immediately we were approached by distraught family members whose loved ones were missing. One young woman with red eyes came up to me explaining that if anyone is alive underneath the rubble, it would have to be her fiance. With tears in her eyes, she explained how strong he always was, how he will find his way back to her.
Another woman, who had come to talk to me already, returned to the supportive safe space in the hotel lobby after she remembered another detail about the apartment, in which her younger sister was located, a younger sister that was taken away from her. Later during the rescue efforts in the rubble, a bright purple shoe was seen popping out, a shoe she may have worn the next day to pre-school.
An exhausted mother came to me and my partner from the IDF as we were cataloging details about those missing, begging the search and rescue teams to find her only daughter, just to see her one more time, and properly bury her. “My daughter is my whole world!” she yelled out, pale-faced, she hadn’t slept in days. The woman’s screams are heard in the background of a phone call. Another man, we met on the flight over. He was flying in from Israel, in the hopes that they would find his dear brother and sister-in-law. The couple had come to Surfside to visit the wife’s father, and it seems they won’t be returning from their trip.
Just like that, the emotional rollercoaster continued day after day for the entirety of our trip. Every day that passed left the worried loved ones with less hope. Within all of the fear, mourning, and crying that took place, we were there, front and center. Holding weak hands and hugging frail people, hoping to absorb their pain with touch. Every story is like a piece of one large puzzle. I enjoy puzzles, but not one like this. Never could I predict one like this.
Along with the mourning family and friends, as the hotel lobby cleared out, the room was made for the exhausted rescue teams, returning after a long day searching for bodies through the remains of the building. Rescue units were able to receive the same help from the PCRU volunteers. Every story was welcome with open ears and a warm smile. Our team also spent some time at the site of the collapse, working with first responders there as well. Through the pain and suffering, there was good. There were volunteers from all over who came to help and support one another. Families found support in one another bonding over their shared grief. This was not the way that anyone wanted to meet one another, but they did manage to support one another and that was a small comfort as well.
Other team members went to the second hotel where the displaced and rescued families who had lost everything in their apartments were located. Our team joined the Red Cross and assisted some of those families as well, connecting them with other community resources that could help in addition to what they were already receiving.
Nothing made me more proud than to have been there, coming from Israel, in order to help these people who had lost literally everything. When people from the community saw the Israeli flag on my chest and on the chests of the rest of our team they would stop and thank us and that too was heartwarming. The families as well as the displaced and complete strangers thanked us for coming all the way, for listening, and for being there when it seemed that no one could help. Jews and non-Jews alike all thanked us for our help and support. We were unified in grief.
Before we left, the community treated us to dinner at a local restaurant. Toward the end, the entire staff circled around our table and gave us a round of applause, soon the rest of the patrons joined in as well. All week I held my tears back, but at that moment, in the restaurant, I cried like never before. I have been involved in the therapy field for many years now and I have responded to and assisted others in responding to some of the worst tragedies that Israel has faced. I work as a social worker in Laniado hospital in Netanya, and I counsel families in terrible situations. I have known grief before, but this was one of the most incredible and moving experiences that I have ever had, and I believe will ever have.
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