SURFSIDE, Fla. — As the grueling search-and-rescue mission at a collapsed Surfside condominium building enters its seventh day, one veteran first responder says emergency crews are hoping for a miracle.
"This is the worst disaster that I have ever been to," said Maggie Castro, a firefighter/paramedic with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. "I've been on several hurricane deployments, and I've never seen devastation like this."
Castro is a rescue specialist with Florida Task Force One, and like hundreds of other brave and dedicated first responders, is relentlessly working day and night in 12-hour shifts at the Champlain Towers property, desperate to find survivors.
"We understand that with every moment that passes, the chances of finding someone alive become less and less," Castro said. "But still we're in no way giving up hope for a miracle that we can find, hopefully, at least one person."
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Authorities on Wednesday said 16 people are dead and another 147 are missing, nearly one week after the 12-story tower collapsed last Thursday.
Castro, who was involved in hurricane response efforts in Puerto Rico and South Carolina over the last few years, said the painstaking search-and-rescue operation in Surfside is taking an emotional toll on first responders.
"We've had guys, kind of, need to sit on the pile for a minute and just let it out, and then be able to get back up and keep working," Castro said.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said crews are carrying out a rescue grid and using heavy machinery to "delayer" the rubble pile piece-by-piece. In addition, two sets of K9 dogs -- those looking for survivors and those looking for the deceased -- are assisting with the search efforts.
"It's absolutely still a search-and-rescue mission," Cominsky said. "If we see a void space, if we find an area, we expand from there. We try to tunnel certain areas through there."
FIRE CHIEF'S COMMENTS:
However, Castro admitted that crews have found very limited amounts of void spaces, most of which aren't big enough to sustain any type of life.
Despite that, Castro said she and her team will be there until they find every person.
"It's really tough to see and know that those are lives. Those are people that were in there," Castro said. "Their loved ones are waiting for a miracle, and we're trying to give it to them."
As the exhaustive search continues, state and local officials are closely monitoring two tropical waves in the Atlantic Ocean, one of which could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to South Florida next week.
The National Hurricane Center said Potential Tropical Cyclone Five in the central Atlantic Ocean has a 70% chance of development over the next two days, and an 90% chance over five days.
WPTV First Alert Chief Meteorologist Steve Weagle said most computer models take the system over the Greater Antilles on Friday, Hispanola on Saturday, and Cuba on Sunday and Monday, then toward the Florida Peninsula early next week.
However, Weagle said there is some disagreement in the computer models, with some tracks showing the system fizzling out, while others bring a significant storm into the Gulf of Mexico or parts of South Florida.
"We're dealing with inclement weather," Cominsky said. "But we keep moving forward."