St. Petersburg Firefighter Nicole Howard was one of 60 plus on Task Force 3 – made up of first responders from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, Tampa Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue – assigned to search for signs of life in the rubble of the condominium collapse in the Miami suburb of Surfside on June 24.
The special operations unit arrived at Champlain Towers South on June 26, two days after the south beach residences fell.
When Bay area responders got to the scene, the condo was standing, partially destroyed with slabs of wreckage amongst the belongings of former residents.
“My mind didn’t want to believe it was true, that what I was seeing was reality,” Howard, who has been with the SPFD for nearly six years, said. “I knew this event would rank as one of the deadliest building collapses in American history.”
Rescue to Recovery
Working with national and Florida teams, Task Force 3 split into two shifts, with around 30 people working 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. and another 30 working 12 a.m. to 12 p.m.
For a week, the work never stopped.
“I’m the one that takes cameras into void spaces of rubble piles to search for any signs of human or animal life,” Howard said. “The reality though is we needed rock breakers.”
The Surfside site has been turned over to federal teams as they have switched the efforts from rescue to recovery operations.
Hoping for a Miracle
Weeks after the disaster, the death toll is at a confirmed 94, including victims as young as 5 years old, with dozens still unaccounted for as of Monday, July 12.
The disaster prompted a Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial, honoring the victims of the collapse with photos, flowers and messages against the chain link.
Howard and her teammates worked near the memorial for the seven consecutive days Task Force 3 was deployed.
“Putting a face and personality to these people you are desperately trying to find brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat,” Howard said. “(It) made us work tirelessly as one to try and find a miracle in the rubble.”