ABOVE PHOTO: A person looks at photos of missing people at a make-shift memorial outside St. Joseph Catholic Church near the Champlain Towers South condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday’s fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
By Bobby Caina Calvan
For 17 days, Reshma Begum survived under heaps of rubble after an eight-story garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh eight years ago. A few years earlier, Darlene Etienne held on for 15 days before rescuers in Haiti found her, thirsty and near death, in a house crumpled by an earthquake.
Stories of endurance and survival under the direst circumstances continue to kindle hopes that rescuers may find more people alive within the tons of debris that was once the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo tower near Miami.
The search stretched into a seventh day Wednesday, with more than 900 workers from 50 federal, state and local agencies working on the effort. At least 16 people are confirmed dead and more than 140 still unaccounted for.
“No one is giving up hope here,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett proclaimed.
He cited the case of Begum, who subsisted on dried food and a scant supply of water while trapped in the ruins of the fallen factory. Rescuers had already abandoned hope of finding more survivors when they heard banging noises — the 19-year-old seamstress was clanging sticks against the fallen structure. Questions later arose whether the incident was a hoax, but the government insisted there truly was a “miracle.”
No one has been pulled out alive from Champlain Towers South since shortly after the collapse. Finding survivors is especially critical in the early days of a disaster, experts say.
“After that the survivability drops off pretty quickly — but it doesn’t go to zero,” said Dr. Hernando Garzon, an emergency room physician in Sacramento, California, who has been deployed to disasters around the globe as part of humanitarian missions and search-and-rescue operations. “It’s too early to call it a body-recovery phase at this point.”
Garzon, who rushed to Haiti in 2010 to aid rescue efforts, recalled the cheers when Etienne, a Port-au-Prince teenager, emerged from the mangled house after being trapped for 16 days by shattered concrete and twisted metal. She was dehydrated, and her left leg was broken, but she was alive. Rescuers said she would not have lasted much longer had they not heard her faint cries for help.
Over the years there have been a number of similar, seemingly impossible rescues:
Evans Monsignac said he survived by sipping sewage while awaiting to be rescued from a collapsed flea market nearly a month after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Park Sung-hyun, a 19-year-old salesclerk in South Korea, credited luck — and rainwater seeping through the ruins — for allowing her to survive 16 days in a collapsed shopping mall in 1995.
Pedrito Dy was rescued after 14 days in 1990 from the basement of a quake-devastated Hyatt Hotel in the Philippines resort of Baguio, surviving on drips of rain, he said, and his own urine.
And Jesus Antonio Castillo was among the last of the “miracle babies” — more than a dozen of them — rescued from a Mexico City hospital nine days after a 1985 earthquake. Bulldozers were being sent to clear the rubble when he was discovered.
“There’s hope. I really believe miracles do happen,” said Martin Langesfeld, whose sister Nicole is believed to be among the missing in Florida. “Things like this have happened around the world.”
Many factors determine how long people can live through extremely fraught conditions, such as the availability of water, the severity of injuries and the degree to which their movement is impaired.
Experts say the key to finding survivors will depend on so-called voids within the rubble — sizeable pockets of space that allow for life. A rightly positioned column, for example, even if collapsed, could have created a kind of structural tent where someone could await rescue.
However, the pancake collapse of the Champlain Towers South left layer upon layer of dense and intertwined debris that structural engineers say could frustrate efforts to reach anyone in such a pocket of space.
Long-term survivors have endured entrapment in considerably smaller buildings, or were trapped in structures that contained sizeable voids.
Many were young, and most had access to water or some other form of sustenance — so the downpours that have sometimes hampered the search in Surfside might be a blessing to someone trapped inside the wreckage.
South Florida’s warm climate could also help, as they’re not exposed to overnight cold.
“There are those who have survived despite all the odds, and I have no doubt that part of it is just that will to survive” that even science cannot explain, said Dr. David Shatz, a trauma surgeon who for 12 years was assistant medical director of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department.
Now a professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, Shatz has been closely monitoring the rescue effort from afar. For years he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the rescuers now toiling at the fallen condo tower.
He also recalled being part of the bucket brigade at the federal building in Oklahoma City, which was brought down by a truck filled with explosives. And he was at the World Trade Center digging through concrete, glass and metal after the 9/11 terror attacks.
With every bit of debris he cleared away, he hoped that underneath would be a person to rescue. But for all its efforts, his team never found anyone alive.
Still, the search must go on, he said. If nothing else, to recover bodies and bring closure to grieving families — and just maybe, for that singular, miraculous rescue.
“I wish it could all be the 150 or so people still missing,” Shatz said. “Even if there’s just one, that would be wonderful.”