Warm homecoming held for Central Florida first responders after aiding in Surfside condo collapse

Officials say more than 120 people still missing

Local crews return after search efforts

ORLANDO, Fla. – It was a heartwarming and moving homecoming as families greeted members of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 who, although have been through some demanding and dangerous conditions, were happy to come home.

The Central Florida task force deployed last week to assist crews in search-and-rescue efforts at the site of the Surfside condo collapse. One-third of the Champlain Towers tumbled down, killing more than 20 people and leaving more than 120 people who are still missing.

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“Once we got around to the back of the building and were able to put in full view on our own eyes how much it truly collapsed, the devastation that it laid before brought home the risk and danger that we faced,” said Walter Lewis, district chief of the Orlando Fire Department.

Forty-two members of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 — which included people from the Orlando, Orange County Seminole County, Lake County and Reedy Creek fire departments — worked 12-hour shifts, from midnight through noon. This was the first time in history that all eight USAR teams responded to an incident.

Lewis said seeing the damage in person was truly shocking. To put it in perspective, the building collapsed so much that when on ground, crews were level with the seventh floor, making for some challenging operations.

“And all this, the third of the building still standing above us, parts of the building still hanging precariously above, thunderstorms coming in with lightning on occasion and at one point part of the building seemed to be moving and us having to evacuate the area,” Lewis said.

Family members say they are proud of their loved ones as they welcomed them home.

“I’m very excited, you know, 10 days without your significant other,” said Stacy Jones, who was waiting with her daughter for her loved one. “I’m super excited just to, you know, give him a big hug and kiss, tell him I love him.”

Mentally, leaders of the task force say although what they saw was heartbreaking, they are still proud they were able to help with rescue and recovery efforts during this disaster.

“It’s God’s will if they are alive or not, and it’s up to us to try and make it happen and we can recover them,” Lewis said. “So with that, we will work with them tenaciously to remove them from the pile and if nothing else, give them a positive or sad answer. But because we are prepared and willing to put that effort, we can walk away with our head held high and know we did our very best.”

We are still waiting on a timetable of when the Champlain Towers will be brought down, reports say it can be demolished as early as Sunday morning.

It’s unclear if the task force will be called back out, but they say they are ready for the call if it comes.

About the Authors:

Brenda Argueta is a digital journalist who joined ClickOrlando.com in March 2021. She graduated from UCF and returned to Central Florida after working in Colorado.

Brian Didlake joined the News 6 team as a reporter in March 2021.