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Surfside rescue operation transitions to recovery with 86 still unaccounted for

Officials called off the rescue operation at the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse Wednesday, 14 days into a grueling but futile search for survivors of the disaster that drew volunteers from all over the country and the world to Surfside, Florida.

Until the transition from search-and-rescue operations to search-and-recovery, many people in a Jewish community that still counts dozens among the missing still hoped — and prayed — for a miracle.

“Just based on the facts, there’s zero chance of survival,” Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue told families of the missing in a private briefing, the New York Times reported.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also announced the discovery of eight additional victims, bringing the total number of confirmed dead to 54. Another 86 remain unaccounted for.

In an interview, Joe Dahan, director of public relations for Hatzalah of South Florida, a Jewish paramedic agency that has maintained a continuous presence at the site since it responded to a call shortly after 1:30 a.m. on June 24, said that the announcement was inevitable, but nevertheless remained emotionally significant to families and rescuers alike.

“It’s a pivotal point that people have been anticipating and no one’s really wanted to face at any point,” Dahan said. “But it seems that it’s a pretty unanimous decision across all the search and rescue teams that they’ve exhausted what possibilities there are.”

With still just over a third of the building’s occupants recovered, the announcement signals the end of a mass casualty event that seemed to unfold in slow motion over the past two weeks and for which there is little precedent in American Jewish history. Perhaps only the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 compare in terms of their impact on a local Jewish community.

One rabbi estimated in the first days following the collapse that as many as 50 of the victims and possibly more were Jewish.

Surfside, a town of 5,600 in an area of South Florida called North Beach, has a visible and growing Jewish community and a strong Orthodox presence, with several synagogues, about a dozen kosher restaurants, and a single kosher grocery store that will soon triple in size.

It was unclear what the implications of Wednesday’s announcement would be for Jewish families of the missing, especially those who hew to rituals that emphasize the importance of being certain that a person has died before shiva is observed and kaddish is said.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron, who leads Surfside Minyan, a congregation that had six member families living in the Champlain Towers South, said it would seem that the halacha of an onen — someone who has died but is not yet buried — should apply once a family knows the person has died, even if their remains had not yet been recovered.

But in practice, he was unsure if the transition to recovery operations necessarily translated to the halachic criteria of deciding that the person is not alive for sure.

“As such, halachically I cannot say there’s any difference between now and earlier today,” Citron said Wednesday night, adding that he was not an expert in this halachic area.

According to Dahan, little will change on site beyond the cessation of using search-and-rescue dogs and listening equipment.

The searchers — some 350 of them on the ground where the 12-story, 130-unit condominium building once stood — will still work by hand, sifting through debris and removing it one five-gallon bucket at a time.

And Hatzalah, whose role has been to provide emergency care for rescue crews — providing IV fluids to rescuers suffering from heat exhaustion, for example — and medical services to the families of the missing, will retain those responsibilities as long as the search continues.

Still, Dahan said, the hope of finding survivors had motivated his team of volunteers, many of whom are physically and emotionally drained after two weeks in oppressive heat and thick rain. Wednesday’s change of course, he said, “sort of shatters that hope.”

He added that his crew faced a long road to recovery that would only begin once search had concluded. About 70 Hatzalah volunteers had contributed to the search in the last two weeks, he said, and many were receiving psychotrauma debriefings.

“Most of our guys know at least one or more people in the building,” said Dahan. “So it’s personal.”

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