Oxnard Fire Chief Alex Hamilton led a national team of firefighters this week to help their fellow first responders at the site of a condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida.
As of midday Friday, 78 people had been found dead and another 62 remained unaccounted for since much of the 12-story Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24.
Hamilton’s team was brought together by the International Association of Fire Fighters to provide “peer support services,” which can range from mental health services to on-site requests.
“It’s brutal, brutal work,” Hamilton said of the 24-hour-a-day effort required of firefighters at the disaster site.
Crews initially scoured the pancaked wreckage for survivors — none had been found since the first few hours following the collapse — but switched to recovery mode on Wednesday.
Hamilton, along with Oxnard firefighter Ulises Castellanos, is one of twelve members on the team, which also includes personnel from Boston, New York, Phoenix and Texas. Tony Pighetti, a retired captain from the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, is also part of Hamilton’s group. It is the third such team funded by the firefighters’ union to help out at the site near Miami.
Hamilton was selected to lead the crew based on his experience providing peer support on two occasions in 2019: after a mass shooting killed 23 people in El Paso, Texas, and after a firefighter committed suicide in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The team’s purpose, Hamilton said, is to assist first responders physically and emotionally as they toil long hours amid devastating tragedy.
Some of the team’s work is practical. When firefighters couldn’t get cell phone service because the sheer number of phones near the site overwhelmed infrastructure, Hamilton’s team called phone companies and rounded up mobile cell towers that were brought in.
“You show up with stuff like that and you become their heroes,” he said.
Another instance involved a support volunteer spotting a first responder with a “thousand-yard stare,” according to Hamilton. The volunteer walked up to the first responder and gave him a hug.
“He said: ‘That’s exactly what I needed,'” Hamilton recalled.
The teams address immediate needs of personnel on the ground and help agencies prepare for future needs, he said.
The type of work Hamilton describes is not unique to firefighters.
Capt. Shane Matthews works as a part of the peer support team with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. He got involved after he was in a shooting several years ago.
“The idea is to get them help before things get worse,” Matthews said of assisting law enforcement officers in trying situations. “We don’t want our own people suffering in the midst of dealing with traumatic events, which we deal with all the time.”
While Hamilton’s past trips with support teams took place in the aftermath of a traumatic event, the Florida deployment marks the first time he has assisted during an ongoing incident.
“They haven’t had a chance to process what they’ve seen,” Hamilton said of on-the-ground crews. “They’re still in operations mode.”
For now, support team members keep an eye on the men and women still focused on combing through the devastation.
“A lot of what we’re doing is being present,” Hamilton said. “The processing will come later.”
Hamilton, Castellanos, Pighetti and the other team members were scheduled to stay until Saturday, when the fourth team was slated to arrive and take over the brunt of the workload.
Until they return home, they’ll be immersed in their own mission to support other firefighters.
“To a large extent, it’s just comforting to have somebody being with them in their turmoil,” Hamilton said
Jeremy Childs is a breaking news and public safety reporter covering the night shift for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached by calling 805-437-0208 or emailing email@example.com. You can also find him on Twitter @Jeremy_Childs.