Surfside collapse: What really happened to the pets of Champlain Towers South?

·17 min read

On July 4, as most of America celebrated Independence Day, one Miami-Dade firefighter risked his life in a last-ditch, unit-by-unit search for pets through the explosive-laden, still-standing remnant of the Champlain South Towers complex in Surfside, Fla.

It had been 10 days since the condominium collapse that killed 98 people and sent others fleeing for their lives — some without their beloved pets.

In all, six cats, two dogs, two parakeets and two guinea pigs were reportedly left inside the building, the remainder of which would later be brought down. Officials for more than a week said it was not possible to look for pets because it was too dangerous for first responders to enter the unstable structure.

Then, just hours before the demolition, one firefighter volunteered to conduct a final search for pets, officials said, even signing a waiver acknowledging the life-threatening risks.

The following day, officials touted the man’s heroic — but ultimately fruitless — efforts, saying he searched the entire building, checking every unit including under beds and in closets.

And then, almost immediately, those same officials tried to bury the story.

Reporters at the USA TODAY Network for weeks tried to arrange an interview with the firefighter and collect details of the attempted rescue, only to be turned away or told a series of conflicting anecdotes.

Some pet owners said officials refused to answer their questions about pet rescue efforts or correspond with them about their concern for their pets.

Pet advocates took to social media to demand answers and criticize Miami-Dade County Mayor Levine Cava’s handling of the situation, even starting a Change.org petition for her recall.

Some have come to doubt there was any rescue attempt at all.

“I do not believe a word that was said about the pets,” said Susana Alvarez, who lived in Unit 1006 with her 4-year-old rescue cat, Mia. “Not one.”

Alvarez said she instinctively fled the crumbling building without Mia — something she says causes her immense grief and guilt to this day. She said officials told the public they were looking for pets but never once contacted her directly.

“If the drones went in there like they claim, let's see the video,” she said. “I want to see the video of the drone going into my apartment looking for my cat.”

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There were no drone reports included in the pet search records provided by Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue to the USA TODAY Network. Records from an unrelated public records request showed a drone flight into the building on June 27, three days after the collapse, with the stated reason: “reconnaissance of each accessible apartment.”

Alvarez said she met two compassionate police officers who offered to go into the building in search of Mia, but officials would not allow it because the remaining structure, which was propped up by fallen debris, could fall at any moment, putting the officers’ lives at risk.

Alvarez gets that, she said. Human lives take priority in rescue efforts, and, while she is hurting, she is sensitive to the devastation suffered by those who lost family members and friends.

Still, she said, officials showed zero concern for the animals until she and others took their grievances to social media and the press.

“They were saying so many different things, and they were contradicting each other,” Alvarez said of what she perceived as officials’ attempts around the time of the demolition to placate pet families and the public by acting as if they had been searching for animals the entire time.

“They did it all so quickly,” Alvarez said of the demolition. “They could have waited. They could have talked to us about it.”

Mia, a 4-year-old rescue cat who lived with Susana Alvarez in Unit 1006 in Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.
Mia, a 4-year-old rescue cat who lived with Susana Alvarez in Unit 1006 in Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.

‘All we got was lip service’

For more than two months, the USA TODAY Network asked Miami-Dade County officials for the identity of the firefighter who conducted the July 4 search or for any further details of that effort.

Officials first told a reporter the man was too shy to talk. Then, they said they didn’t know his identity. Later, Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue spokesperson Erica Benitez suggested checking with other agencies from across the country that might have been onsite.

Reporters filed public records requests for the waiver the rescuer signed, any reports he filed, or any documents containing mention of the mission.

Officials on Sept. 9 said no such records existed and closed the request.

Despite official statements, an in-depth review of more than a thousand pages of documents, photographs and drone logs, obtained via public records requests, reflected no pet rescue efforts after the date of the initial collapse.

Unless the rescuer was injured, a report would not likely have been filed, Benitez said.

“It’s not that strange; it’s not abnormal,” she said. “It’s difficult to understand it, but our department, every department, it's not necessarily something that would be extensively documented or documented past an operational briefing.”

Days after that statement and more than a week after Miami-Dade Fire Rescue had closed the public records request, the USA TODAY Network received an email containing several documents the department said it “inadvertently forgot” to include.

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One document was an email dated on July 4 by the firefighter and sent to four fire-rescue personnel, including Benitez.

According to that email, the media-shy hero was Andy Alvarez, who, just days before the pet rescue mission, appeared numerous times live on national television — including on CNN, Good Morning America, and NBC’s Today show — talking about rescue efforts in Surfside.

In the email, Alvarez referenced other pet rescue attempts as well. It said he had placed and retrieved empty pet traps the day of the demolition and had searched the entire structure for pets the day before that.

The owner of the demolition company hired to implode the building told the USA TODAY Network he remembered a firefighter going in to search for pets, but did not know the man’s name.

Reached by phone on Friday, Alvarez, assistant fire chief of the Marine Services Bureau in Medley, Fla., agreed to talk to the USA TODAY Network about his part in the search for pets.

But before that could happen, the USA TODAY Network received a text from Benitez, saying Alvarez did not want to talk and that his request should be respected.

The USA TODAY Network called Alvarez back at the scheduled interview time, at which time Alvarez said he would talk about his experience provided Benitez approved.

“Once she gives me the green thumb, I can talk,” he said. “Especially with Champlain and how sensitive everything is there, it's very tricky.”

During that call, Alvarez confirmed that he had not signed any documents nor filed any official paperwork regarding the pet rescue effort. A short time later, the USA TODAY Network emailed him a copy of the email fire-rescue had provided the prior evening and asked him if he wrote it.

Without confirming or denying that email’s authenticity, Alvarez about 45 minutes later replied to the USA TODAY Network in an email copied to Benitez, saying he would not talk unless “forced by law” and requesting not to be contacted again.

On a conference call later that day, which included Rachel Johnson, the communications director for Mayor Levine Cava, Benitez held that Alvarez did not want to speak and just did not want to say so.

Benitez said the department had wanted the man’s name redacted from the email sent to the USA TODAY Network the prior night, but that request had been denied. She said officials have been transparent with information and public records requests.

Ana Campos, a private investigator who collaborated with three of the Champlain families to help rescue their pets, said officials have been anything but transparent.

“We would watch the press conferences on TV that said there were no animals, then they hadn’t checked, then they did check, then they couldn't access the building, then it was only the first floor,” Campos said. “All we got was lip service and the same old stale statement, which was contradictory every time.”

‘Available to be rescued’

Champlain Towers South was a “no pets” building, which meant any pets were supposed to have been registered as service animals to provide care or comfort to their human parents.

One fourth-floor resident, who asked not to be identified by name, escaped with her 89-year-old mother and her dog, Rigatoni, but was unable to grab her cat, Coco, who ran and hid from the noise and melee.

Rescuers on cherry pickers at the woman's balcony yelled at her to hurry up, she said, instructing her to leave her sliding door open. The woman said she put out extra food and water, believing rescuers would later return for Coco.

But Coco was never rescued, despite reports that the cat had been spotted on her balcony the day before the demolition.

“She did not starve, and she did not get dehydrated,” the resident said. “That cat was available to be rescued. It wasn’t done timely. To me, that cat could have possibly died when it was imploded. And that hurts.”

Coco, who lived on the 4th floor of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., was reportedly seen on her balcony the day before the remaining structure was demolished on July 4, 2021.
Coco, who lived on the 4th floor of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., was reportedly seen on her balcony the day before the remaining structure was demolished on July 4, 2021.

The woman, who said she remained quiet about her cat out of respect for her friends and neighbors who lost their lives in the collapse, said that as time passed, she began to ask officials what could be done to save Coco. But she was shut down, she said.

“They should have called each one of us and asked if there was something they missed that they could viably do,” she said. “They had plenty of resources. Enough resources to go around.”

Campos, the private investigator, agreed.

“No one was asking for firefighters to risk their lives,” she said of what she said was officials' refusal to consider safe, alternative rescue methods such as drones. “They were irrelevant. The animals' lives did not matter.”

By the time Levine Cava on July 3 announced plans to implode the structure the following day, public outcry over the pets had reached fever pitch. The situation had so escalated that some people on social media were calling out officials as parties to “murder.”

A Change.org petition to stop the demolition until the building could be searched for pets garnered more than 18,000 signatures in a mere 48 hours before the demolition. One of several Facebook groups dedicated to the cause grew to 3,200 followers in those same two days.

A legal effort was also underway to delay the implosion or allow citizen volunteers to conduct a final search for pets. Miami attorney Paula J. Phillips said she filed a “Hail Mary” motion hours before the scheduled demolition, but a judge dismissed the action.

“They said the building was fully loaded with explosives, and they were ready to detonate, and delaying it would have put the demolition crew at risk,” she said.

Alvarez, who owned Mia the cat, said officials would not speak up for the pets out of fear it would appear they cared more about animals than people. But some did express sympathy to her in private, she said.

“I even had someone call me from Tallahassee, a government official who didn’t want to get involved, but told me if I wanted to hold a press conference, she would help me,” Alvarez said.

But there was no time, Alvarez said. The implosion, which officials initially said would take weeks to prepare for, ended up happening in days.

“I broke down in tears,” she said of the demolition. “In the mountains of dust, there were people and my cat. It's just sad.”

‘I do remember that guy’

By 8 a.m. on July 4 — the day of the demolition — experts were on site strategically placing explosives throughout the ground floor and basement of the building, said Mark Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition Inc., the company hired to handle the implosion. By 4:30 p.m., he said, the bombs were in place.

No one was allowed within about 100 yards — or 1.5 times the building height — from the structure, he said. Officials had already announced that, for the safety of first responders, search and rescue efforts for humans had been halted at 4 p.m. the prior day.

“Once explosives arrive on site, all the rules change, and everything happening is in consideration of the presence of those explosives,” said Loizeaux. “There are different safety rules in place from OSHA.”

Loizeaux said security was tight and there was no way anyone unauthorized could have entered the building.

“Even when we went up it was an ordeal,” he said. “It was a proverbial gauntlet to get on site.”

But at least one person did go up into the explosive-laden building, he recalled.

“I do remember that guy,” he said. “There was a firefighter, nice guy, agonizing over this. He was under tremendous pressure.”

The firefighter, whose name Loizeaux did not recall, had approached him asking if he could have permission to enter the building to search for pets.

“He was directed to get permission from me to do one more sweep,” Loizeaux said. “He was directed, he said he was directed. I don’t know by whom.”

Loizeaux agreed to let the man up, provided he checked out with Loizeaux in person when he left, which Loizeaux said the man did.

But those rescue efforts were not formally documented. The Daily Incident Action Plans, filed by officials during the two days Alvarez’s email said he searched the building for pets and set live animal traps, did not reference his or any other pet rescue efforts.

Each action plan detailed more than 30 pages of objectives and rules for first responders. But the only reference to pets was that dead animals were to be bagged, identified with the type of animal and recovery location and turned over to the Miami-Dade police homicide division. Then, according to the plans, police were to turn over the remains to animal control for processing.

Miami-Dade County Animal Services Department did not respond to a public records request for information on rescue efforts or any animals recovered dead or alive.

Public records did not show fire-rescue maintained a list of residents with pets or unit numbers where pets might have lived, what types of pets were missing or the location of those that were reportedly in cages.

Alvarez’s July 4 email only referenced cats and said he found none dead or alive. Public records from fire-rescue included no reports of any animals recovered by first responders dead or alive at any time since the collapse.

‘On camera, trying to take credit’

Taylor Scheinhaus, who lived in Unit 904, was out when her condo split in half, killing her father and sending her mother and sister plummeting onto the rubble pile where they sustained serious, but survivable, injuries.

Scheinhaus said officials told her that her bulldog, Daisy, had been found near her father. But the family’s two cats, Binx and Hippo, were still missing, she said.

“When we found out about my father, my mom said, ‘Let's see what we can do about the animals,’” Scheinhaus said.

The USA TODAY Network previously reported that a rescuer from the Israel Defense Forces said he saw a first responder uncover a “big grey dog” and attempt to “throw it away.” That dog matched the description of Daisy.

Scheinhaus and her friends took to social media to seek help locating the cats, she said. Hippo, who was old, was never found.

Binx, however, was reunited with the family four days after the demolition. A volunteer from a local animal rescue group had discovered him — a detail obfuscated by officials, Campos said.

“They chose to not look like they were investing resources and time on a cat, yet they were the first ones on camera trying to take credit when Binx was found,” Campos said of officials. “When you see the reunion video, the room was filled with firefighters and police officers taking credit.”

‘Unlimited resources’

No one who raised concerns about animals for this article said they wanted first responders to risk their lives to save pets. They wanted officials to utilize rescue efforts that did not require anyone to enter the unstable structure.

One way to accomplish that was with special drones capable of placing and retrieving live pet traps, said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who got involved with pet rescue efforts after being contacted by a constituent.

Russell said he attempted to share the drone idea on June 26 with Chief Joseph F. Zahralban of the City of Miami Department of Fire-Rescue, but was not able to reach not reach Zahralban until June 28.

“I was told the FAA had basically declared a no fly zone for any aircraft,” he said. “That shut that down.”

Zahralban, however, took the pet families’ concerns seriously, Russell said, and arranged for a firefighter later that day to go up to the fourth floor in a “bucket” on a crane to the balcony where Coco the cat lived.

Water and bags of cat food left by a City of Miami firefighter for Coco the cat, who lived on the 4th floor of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.
Water and bags of cat food left by a City of Miami firefighter for Coco the cat, who lived on the 4th floor of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.

In a compassionate act of bravery, the firefighter called for the cat by name and left a bowl of water and little bags of food on the balcony near the slightly opened sliding glass door, Russell said.

“After we did this feeding, the building shifted,” he said of the dangerous instability of the remaining structure. “They weren’t sending any more people in; they weren’t sending bucket trucks to the windows any more. That ended the hope of further recovery.”

Russell, an animal lover whose wife is a veterinarian, was devastated.

“It was disheartening, because they kept saying the same line: They swept the building twice and there was no sign of animals,” he said. “But it's not just about those animals' lives; it's about what they could do to comfort their owners who did survive.”

Phillips, the attorney who filed the last-minute motion to delay the demolition, said she hopes the county’s “utter lack of structure” for how to treat families or deal with animal victims leads to future changes in policies and procedures.

“There should be a hierarchy of officials who are designated to interface with the people who run these efforts for the command site, and that simply does not exist,” she said. “That is a solvable problem. Something needs to change, and I hope it will after this disaster.”

For Susana Alvarez, the whole thing is maddening. While she lost her home and all of her possessions, including her mother’s wedding ring, she said, there is nothing worth shedding a tear over except her beloved Mia.

And even if officials did attempt a rescue on July 4, which she said she does not believe happened, it might have been too late anyways.

Eleven days after the collapse, she said, animals with no food, no water and no air conditioning in the sweltering heat and smoke from continual fires, had probably already perished.

“I remember that Saturday, I went by the building, and I just broke down in tears because the building was covered in smoke,” she said of the second day after the collapse. “I'm assuming that that’s when she died, with the smoke.”

@WendyRhodesFL

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Surfside collapse: Pet owners angry with officials over rescue efforts