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July 21, 2021 12:24 pm
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As an Israeli First Responder, I Went to Surfside

avatar by Hadas Rucham

Opinion

Members of the search and rescue team stand during a moment of silence in front of the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida, U.S. July 7, 2021, in this still image taken from drone footage obtained from social media. Mandatory credit MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE/via REUTERS

On Thursday afternoon, June 24, Israel received the tragic news coming from Surfside, Florida, regarding the collapse of the Champlain Towers. The building housed a number of Jewish families, causing the news to travel at light speed in Israel.

And Israel, being too familiar with large-scale tragedies, responded almost instantly.

After only brief preparations, Israel began sending delegations and special units to Miami. One unit was fully equipped with technology and tools developed by the IDF 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, the six-member team from the PCRU went to Surfside to help provide psychological and emotional stabilization and counseling in the wake of the tragedy. We also brought 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 was alive underneath the rubble, it would have to be her fiancee. With tears in her eyes, she explained how strong he always was — and how he would find his way back to her.

Another woman, who had come to talk to me already, returned after she remembered another detail about the apartment where her younger sister was located — a purple shoe she may have worn the next day to pre-school.

(Photo credit: United Hatzalah)

An exhausted mother came to me and my partner from the IDF as we were cataloging details about those missing, and begged 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. On our flight, we met another man who was traveling to Florida, 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 seemed they wouldn’t be returning from their trip.

Just like that, the emotional roller-coaster continued day after day. 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. Holding hands and hugging people, hoping to absorb their pain with touch.

Along with the mourning family and friends, as the hotel lobby cleared out, 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. Families found support in one another — bonding over their shared grief. This was not the way that people 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 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.

(Photo credit: United Hatzalah)

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 — Jews and non-Jews alike. 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. 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, and I have responded to some of the worst tragedies that Israel has faced. 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.

Hadas Rucham is a social worker at the Emergency Trauma Unit at Laniado Hospital in Netanya. She is also the Head of Operations for United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit and a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

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