GREEN, Ohio — Green Fire Captain Josh Compton has traveled to several disaster locations as part Ohio Task Force 1, including Hurricane Sandy along the east coast in 2012, Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017 and the Dayton-area tornadoes in 2019.
But his latest assignment — leading one of the search teams at the site of a 12-story condominium building that partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida — feels much different.
"It's a very difficult situation physically and mentally," Compton said.
A large section of Champlain Towers South collapsed without warning after 1 a.m. on June 24. The other part of the building that was standing was demolished Sunday night.
"With the hurricane situations, those residents have some time to evacuate and get themselves to safety. Unfortunately, these residents didn't have time to do that. It was an instant thing," Compton said. "Mentally, it's a different situation. We know why we're there."
About 80 members of Ohio's task force, along with several canine search teams, arrived in Miami-Dade County a few days ago to help dig through the pancaked debris.
Compton spent his first full day on the pile, working noon to midnight on Monday, and the bodies of several victims were found. More than 100 people are still missing. Twenty-eight people were confirmed dead as of July 5.
"It's definitely a little emotional. That's someone's family member. That's someone's mother, daughter, sister, husband or wife. I have a family at home and I think about them when that's happening," Compton said.
Even though nearly two weeks have passed, Compton said the crews are not giving up hope on finding possible survivors.
"There are some studies out, there have been some people that have been pulled from rubble piles similar to this up to two weeks out," he said.
Aside from the emotional toll, the teams are also dealing with the physical challenges of working in the Florida heat using both heavy equipment and their hands to search.
"We're doing a lot of digging by hand and things like that, and then we'll take that debris and put it in a large bucket, more or less," Compton said. "Jagged edges, it's very difficult to walk on. The concrete has just crumbled to very small rocks."
The weather is adding to the already complicated search effort. Compton said a storm rolled through on Monday and it "about blew us off the pile."
On top of pop-up storms, there is uncertainty over how Tropical Storm Elsa will impact the digging.
"Some of the outer bands are probably going to hit us," Compton said. "We're probably going to get soaked again."
Compton said task force members have been searching for an hour at a time and then taking 20 to 30-minute breaks while other searchers rotate onto the pile.
After finishing 12-hour shifts, the crews head to a cruise ship about 25 minutes away where they eat and sleep. Each day, there's a briefing before team members head back out for another 12 hours of searching.
Compton said Ohio Task Force 1 could remain in Florida for 2 weeks.
While the mission is physically and mentally draining, he feels a strong need to be at the tragic site in an effort to help bring closure to the families who had loved ones in the building.
"If it were my family in that building, I'd want to be there too," Compton said. I'd want my friends and family there trying to help me also."