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Sifting Silently Through Surfside’s Rubble
Sinead Imbaro and her Belgian Malinois’s quest for hints of life.
July 3, 2021
“Not being able to deliver for the families is what’s most painful,” Imbaro said, of the search for survivors of the collapse of Champlain Towers South.Photographs by Gesi Schilling for The New Yorker
On Wednesday night, Sinead Imbaro, a forty-nine-year-old South Florida rescue worker, sat on a stoop in the town of Surfside looking into the distance. Her twelve-hour shift at the site where at least sixty-seven apartment units collapsed
last week had just ended, and the day’s news was grim. Six more victims, including a pair of sisters aged four and ten, had been found dead. The death toll had risen to eighteen, with a hundred and forty-five people still unaccounted for. For nearly a week, Imbaro and her Belgian Malinois, Magnus, had been searching for any hints of life. The seven-year-old dog was trained to sniff for human breath, or human odors of any kind, but had found none so far. “Not being able to deliver for the families is what’s most painful,” Imbaro told me, as a light drizzle fell. “There’s no way to prepare for the emotion that you get from being here.”
A sculpted woman with chiselled facial features, Imbaro has worked as a K-9 police and military trainer for more than two decades. Champlain Towers South was her first assignment as part of Florida Task Force-6, one of the state’s urban search-and-rescue units. All told, more than four hundred county, state, and federal rescue workers have been trying to find survivors. Élite international teams, including one from the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.), have joined the round-the-clock operation. Workers sift and dig through the twelve stories of rubble and debris using their own hands, as well as shovels, saws, backhoes, and cranes. It is a painstaking effort—one that has become more gruelling with each passing day but which cannot be rushed. On the pile, Imbaro and others conduct their work largely in silence, sorting through chunks of concrete mixed with residents’ belongings and personal mementos. “If the machines weren’t working,” she observed, “you could probably hear a pin drop.”
Imbaro taught Magnus commands in multiple languages, to insure that not just anyone could prompt him to obey.
With the seven-day mark fast approaching, Imbaro expected officials to soon announce whether the search would shift from a rescue effort to a recovery one. All of the three dozen people pulled alive from the wreckage were discovered on the day of the collapse. Among them was Jonah Handler, a fifteen-year-old boy who was pleading for help when Nicholas Balboa, a passerby, arrived. “We could see his arms sticking out and his fingers wiggling,” Balboa told the Times. “He was just saying, ‘Please don’t leave me.’ ” The boy’s mother, Stacie Fang, was the first victim to be identified after the collapse—she died of blunt-force trauma. Experience had taught Imbaro that the chance of finding additional survivors became slimmer by the day.
Still, she remained hopeful—past tragedies had shown just how resilient the human body could be. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a sixty-nine-year-old woman was rescued from the rubble after seven days without food or water. She became known as the “miracle woman.” Three years later, a teen-ager was found alive on the seventeenth day following the collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh. “We’re treating those trapped as still living,” Colonel Elad Edri, a deputy commander of the I.D.F.’s team, told the press. His team had built a 3-D rendering of the building and its collapse to help rescuers locate those buried inside. Like all the other rescue groups, they were looking for tunnels within the tightly packed debris—a possible lifeline for survivors. Early on in the search, rescuers heard the voice of a woman coming from the lower level of the building, but a fire forced them to move back. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore,” Alan Cominsky, Miami-Dade County’s fire chief, told reporters.
In the early hours of Thursday, the seventh day after the collapse, the search was briefly suspended. Engineers were worried that a large column hanging from the structure still standing, where they had detected six to twelve inches of movement, could collapse. Imbaro and other rescue workers were ordered to remain on standby—a decision that frustrated many, not least of all the families. Some were convinced that everything had come to a halt because President Biden
was due to visit Surfside that day, but local authorities insisted that his presence would not interfere in any way. For their part, rescuers understood their work to be a race against time. “Everyone works as one—they don’t care about the politics,” Imbaro said. “They are all waiting to get back on the pile.”
And so was Imbaro. She had got her sense of service from her father, who was a Presbyterian minister in New Brunswick, Canada. Her mother worked in the military as a quality-control inspector, and the family spent long hours at church, where neighbors would regularly come in to seek the minister’s counsel or pray along with him. At eighteen, Imbaro enrolled at the University of New Brunswick to study forensic anthropology. But, after enduring four consecutive blizzards at home and visiting Florida, she decided to move to Key West in search of warmer weather in the mid-nineties. Imbaro landed a job at a jewelry store that specialized in shipwreck coins. She later became a personal trainer and manager at a local gym. She understood exercise to be as much a source of strength as a means of empowering those around her.
When Magnus came into Imbaro’s life several years ago, she was determined to train him, too. “He was as big as his head,” she recalled, adding that Magnus was only seven weeks of age. By the time he turned sixteen months, he was among the youngest K-9 dogs to be certified in narcotics operations. Imbaro drew her own lessons from Magnus’s training. She built enough strength to be able to carry the eighty-four-pound dog in case of an emergency. She also learned to read the dog’s every gesture: his breathing patterns as well as the movement of his tail. She taught him commands in multiple languages, so as to insure that not just anyone could prompt him to obey. “Assis
,” in French, meant “sit”; “Los
,” from the Dutch, meant “let go.” Imbaro believed the proper training of one’s K-9 dog wasn’t all that different from the care with which officers treated their guns. “You ensure that gun is cleaned and fine tuned each day for the fact that your life is dependent upon it,” she once wrote in an article about the challenges of being a female dog handler.
As part of her training, Imbaro built enough strength to be able to carry the eighty-four-pound dog in case of an emergency.
Although some handlers considered dogs to be nothing more than a tool, Imbaro never dissociated her work from Magnus’s. His safety always came first. On the pile, she needed to watch out for loose debris, broken glass or rebar, and slippery surfaces. “He goes in naked,” Imbaro said, referring to the fact that he wore neither a collar nor a vest. Every morning, her unit was briefed on the previous night’s findings, the changes in weather conditions, and any significant incidents. One of the rescuers had ended up in the hospital, and the team kept having to deal with heavy downpour, lightning storms, humidity, and scorching heat. Of course, the rain and wind also affected the odors in the pile. Those kinds of changes could interfere with Magnus’s focus—and so could the things he came across. If the dog snapped and lowered his tail, it meant he had found a distracting odor, like that of food or a pet; if he raised his tail, it was something he had been trained on.
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Over the course of the day, every time Magnus scoured the pile, he and Imbaro had to wait for it to shift—this helped guarantee that the dog was working on fresh ground. Because the pair weren’t finding any new survivors, Imbaro needed to keep his motivation up. “A dog will feel emotion all the way down the leash,” she said. One way to do this, once they were done searching a pile, was to perform exercises, in which one of Imbaro’s teammates would go hide somewhere and she would send Magnus to find him. More often than not, outside of those exercises, Magnus found himself looking at Imbaro intently on the pile—an indication that he had already probed the area and had detected no signs of life. Imbaro carried small plastic bags in her pockets to store the personal effects that she came across. There were photographs and children’s toys, wallets, passports, and strollers.
Relatives and friends had laid their own mementos at a makeshift memorial just a couple of blocks away from the rubble. To the right of the memorial was a gray Miami-Dade Fire Rescue shirt that read:
You’re not our patients
You are our neighbors
You are our friends
You are our family
We know you’re hurting,
We are hurting too
We just can’t show it yet
The rescue effort resumed around five on Thursday afternoon, but Imbaro’s assignment wasn’t extended. It was possible, she said, that the state wanted to maintain a number of rescuers on call, in preparation for Hurricane Elsa, which was rapidly approaching South Florida. It was also possible, Imbaro thought, that the focus of the effort was now shifting. Regardless of the motive, she was experiencing a sense of loss over a task unfinished. As of Saturday, the total death toll had risen to twenty-four; more than a hundred people were still missing.
Out of precaution, the mayor of Miami-Dade County had ordered the portion of Champlain Towers South that was still standing to be demolished. Imbaro was at home, in North Miami, getting ready to retrieve her belongings at the team’s base camp when she recalled her last evening at the site. There were no more dogs searching for the living, so she approached different units to ask how she could help. It was then that a firefighter’s seven-year-old daughter was found amid the rubble. When the man was notified, he wrapped the girl in his own jacket and laid a small flag over her body. “All the firefighters started to stand up,” Imbaro said of their solemn procession. “It was too much to bear.”
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, a contributing writer, joined The New Yorker’s editorial staff in 2017.
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