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West Palm Beach firefighters recall grueling search in aftermath of Surfside condo collapse

Firefighters feel sorrow for those they couldn't save
Lt. Jason Ramirez, West Palm Beach firefighter speaks to WPTV year after Surfside condo collapse
Posted at 7:52 AM, Jun 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-24 12:26:06-04

SURFSIDE, Fla. — On the one-year mark since the Surfside condominium collapse, first responders are reflecting on their time spent working at the collapse site.

West Palm Beach Fire Rescue Lt. Jason Ramirez was part of a team of 24 firefighters from West Palm Beach stations who specialized in urban search-and-rescue.

The team was dispatched to Surfside a week after the initial collapse.

WPTV interviewed Ramirez at the collapse site where he reflected on the difficult nature of this assignment.

"It's very difficult as well to kind of see all the names and all the individuals that we weren't able to find," Ramirez said.

For three days, Ramirez worked with his team in 12-hour shifts, pulling rubble off the pile that was once the Champlain Towers South.

A total of 98 people died when the condo suddenly fell on June 24, 2021.

West Palm Beach firefighter Lt. Jason Ramirez looks at names of lives lost at memorial for Surfside condo collapse victims
West Palm Beach firefighter Lt. Jason Ramirez looks at the names of the 98 lives lost in the June 24, 2021, Champlain Towers South condominium collapse at a memorial for the victims.

Knowing the mission most likely rescue rather than recovery was tough Ramirez.

"Our main job is help people, our main job is to rescue people, you know, and being able to kind of accept the fact or acknowledge that you couldn't do it is very difficult," Ramirez said.

The crew from West Palm Beach mainly used buckets to clear off debris.

West Palm Beach Fire Rescue Lt. Jacqueline Curtis said she and each of her teammates easily filled hundreds of buckets, trying to find things within the pile.

"You're like, 'Who does this belong to? Who's area or room, apartment are we technically in right now?'" Curtis recalled. "That was a little eerie."

West Palm Beach firefighter Lt. Jacqueline Curtis speaks to WPTV year after Surfside condo collapse
West Palm Beach firefighter Lt. Jacqueline Curtis recalls to WPTV the eerie experience of walking through debris that was once people's homes after the Surfside condo collapse.

It wasn't just firefighters who helped.

Three hours away in Vero Beach, Anthony Zorbaugh loaded up two food trucks from his organization's headquarters the morning of the collapse.

"Whenever there's a tragedy anywhere in the state of Florida, we're going to try to go," Zorbaugh said.

The Source is an organization that helps the homeless, and Zorbaugh knew first responders and families in Surfside needed help as well.

"We knew that people needed to eat," he said. "So the biggest thing for us was to come down there with our product, with what we had, and be able to serve food. So the amount of chaos and the devastation that you've seen down there is life-transformational for our staff that was there."

Anthony Zorbaugh, executive director of The Source talks to WPTV about Surfside condo collapse year later
Anthony Zorbaugh, executive director of The Source in Vero Beach, drove down to Surfside to help feed everyone involved in the search-and-rescue efforts after the Champlain Towers South condominium building collapsed.

Two days later, Zorbaugh and his team of four served a total of 300 meals to anyone at the scene for free.

Reflecting on how they feel a year later, Curtis and Ramirez carry a mix of feelings.

"It's a horrible thing," Curtis said, thinking of the victims' families.

For Ramirez, when he finally returned home, he thought of his own family.

"When I got home, I hugged my wife, you know, I hugged my kids, and it just gives you an appreciation for the fact that you truly don't know what's going to happen," Ramirez said.