As painstaking rescue efforts continue among the wreckage of a collapsed Miami-area condominium tower, a former Montrealer is on the ground providing and leading medical support on the scene of the tragedy.
Dr. Howard Lieberman, a trauma surgeon at the Jackson Memorial Hospital Ryder Trauma Center, was first called to the oceanfront town of Surfside last Thursday to relieve a colleague who arrived shortly after the building fell.
In the hours that followed, Lieberman officially received the deployment order. He was assigned as medical team manager for the Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force-1.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said, adding that he has several medics working under his guide as the operations continue.
“It is a massive deployment in terms of the amount of task force that are here — 800 people searching a very small footprint.”
As of Thursday, the deaths of 16 people have been confirmed but at least 140 people are still missing and believed to be trapped in the rubble. Authorities said it’s still a search-and-rescue operation, but no one has been found alive since hours after the collapse.
Rescuers are using bucket brigades and heavy machinery as they work atop a precarious mound of pulverized concrete, twisted steel and the remnants of dozens of households. The efforts include firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts using radar and sonar devices.
The task force has been working nonstop in difficult weather conditions — like rolling thunderstorms and high humidity, leaving the area slick and wet. They have also been sifting through jagged metal and exposed rebar as loved ones of missing condo residents wait for answers, according to Lieberman.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “Obviously, nighttime makes it a little bit worse, but we’re extremely well trained.”
The days and nights are long, but what was most difficult was when the first group of families arrived on Sunday.
“It was probably the most emotionally devastating day of my professional life,” he said. “And I’ve been a trauma surgeon for about 11 years now.
“After the second round of family visitations, to be honest, I had to leave. It was too emotional and it’s rough but it was something that was needed.”
The team on the ground has been working around the clock as part of rescue efforts — and supporting one another.
“No one is stopping,” Lieberman said. “No one is backing down. The conditions are a little bit adverse here with the heat, the humidity, the sun, the rain, the lightning. And we’re going 24/7.
“No one is stopping.”
— with files from Global News’ Jackson Proskow and Emerald Bensadoun, Reuters and the Associated Press