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‘We’re going to search … down to the sand,’ says OCFA battalion chief at Florida condo collapse

An Orange County Fire Authority battalion chief assisting in the hunt for survivors of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Florida said there is still hope of finding someone alive in the rubble.

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“There are still areas that are very difficult to access,” Kevin Fetterman, 45, said in a phone interview Saturday night, July 3, from Surfside. “We’re absolutely in a search-and-rescue mode. We’re going to search until we get down to the sand.”

Those efforts were paused Saturday as officials planned to demolish the remainder of the building that still stands ahead of the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa, which has been downgraded from a hurricane. The death toll stood at 24 people, with 121 still missing.

“It’s a tremendously sad event for the families,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman arrived on June 28 as part of the National Urban Search and Rescue System. He is a planning section chief on a team of 26 people that assists with the planning of the operation. Fetterman has worked on other disasters such as a mudslide in Washington state, a flood in Colorado and a hurricane in Puerto Rico.

“Whenever you are managing an incident like this, it gets very complex because there are a lot of things that happen at the same time. …. It’s a very dynamic environment. No. 1 a building collapsed. No. 2 managing ramifications of COVID. If you add a hurricane in there, you can imagine that level of activity and the number of people involved (500-1,000, he said), there’s a tremendous amount of complexity, and trying to coordinate that is one of the roles I assist with,” Fetterman said.

He praised “the unity of effort.”

“It’s been a tremendous honor to be part of this event and see all the parties at the local, state and federal levels work together at an extremely high tempo,” Fetterman said.

He acknowledged the physical and mental toll. Fetterman estimated that he and others work 20 hours per day. He seldom sees the inside of his hotel room. Some workers are lodged on a cruise ship.

The International Association of Firefighters brought in mental health workers to assist with what a few hours of sleep can’t help, Fetterman said.

Fetterman praised his wife, Jennifer, for being a “rock star” and taking care of things at home in Temecula, where they live with their 11-year-old daughter. He said he expects to be at the site for several more weeks.

Two OCFA building specialists were expected to arrive soon. Building specialists are trained to determine if a building is safe to operate in, typically after a fire, earthquake or other disaster, OCFA Capt. Than Nguyen said.

The OCFA responders are a part of a team of search-and-rescue specialists that includes personnel from fire departments in San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland.


Source: Orange County Register

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