United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Team Aids in FL Condo Collapse Efforts

Therapist Batya Jaffe and Dr. Jennifer Maltz comfort a family member while others give information to the IDF Home Front Command.
Therapist Batya Jaffe and Dr. Jennifer Maltz comfort a family member while others give information to the IDF Home Front Command. (Photos/United Hatzalah)

As rescue efforts in the community of Surfside, Florida, continue, United Hatzalah of Israel was dispatched on Saturday night, together with the IDF’s Home Front Command, to assist with the rescue operations at the collapsed condo building. The Israeli teams departed on Saturday night on the same flight as Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, with their tickets sponsored by El Al Airlines. 

Upon arrival in Miami, United Hatzalah’s team of six specialists from its Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU) met with local community leaders in order to map out the needs of the community. Shortly thereafter, the team joined a group meeting over Zoom that included nearly two-dozen leaders of relief organizations and other social workers and therapists in order to create a unified plan of action that would allow the organizations to work together and support one another without duplicating the work of another organization or group. The meeting was run by Miriam Singer, the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Community Services of South Florida (JCSFL). Participants in the meeting included leaders of local synagogues, community leaders, representatives from Cadena, Chai Lifeline, Mt. Sinai Hospital, JCSFL, Miami Jewish Health, The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Chabad, the Children’s Bereavement Center, Repair The World, Hatzalah of South Florida and others. 

“The worst thing operationally is to create a situation where dozens of care and assistance groups come in and all start trying to do therapy on a single individual or a few different individuals but end up traumatizing them, due to the number of times that person would have to repeat the story over and over and over again to people from different organizations. This would create a secondary trauma for the person instead of helping them. This is why we must coordinate and map out who needs help and where before we dive in,” said Dovie Maisel, the Vice of Operations for United Hatzalah and leader of the mission currently in Surfside. “The tragedy that these people lived through is one that for many can be incredibly debilitating. What we need to ensure is that we are treating them and not causing more harm. 

Hadas Rucham and Dr. Sharon Slater assist the IDF in gathering information about a missing person.
Hadas Rucham and Dr. Sharon Slater assist the IDF in gathering information about a missing person.

The team from United Hatzalah’s PCRU then headed to the Grand Beach Hotel on Collins Avenue, where displaced people from the building, as well as the families of those who have been buried in the rubble and have not yet been found, were gathered. The scene was surreal. 

Hundreds of people were sitting in the largest meeting hall of the hotel, and dozens of first responders, chaplains, police, social workers, firefighters, counselors, community volunteers, and DNA testers, were assisting people as best they could in order to help them process the tragedy. 

Volunteers were bringing people food that was being made especially for them at the local community center which has been turned into a makeshift kitchen. According to volunteers from Yedidim, there are 250 men and women who are helping out to make this operation run smoothly so that those in the hotel a few blocks away would be able to have food and drinks. Yedidim USA opened a kosher kitchen at the Surfside Community Center and has been providing over three thousand hot meals, water, coffee and snacks around the clock to all the families of the missing people at the hotel, as well as to all of the first responders at the ground of the collapse and around the premises.

Once the Israeli delegation arrived, the scene changed. “People kept coming up to us and saying how happy they were that we arrived,” said Batya Jaffe, an animal-assisted therapist who was part of the PCRU team active at the hotel. “They felt that now that we had come, things would start to move and they could finally get an answer as to whether or not their loved one, or ones, was still alive. I was told this multiple times by numerous different people. It was astounding how much faith these distraught people had in us and in the team from the Home Front Command,” said Jaffe. 

“I saw in the news that you were coming to Israel for us and I was waiting for you to come,” said one young woman who collapsed in tears upon seeing the delegation from United Hatzalah. The young woman then proceeded to pet Lucy, Batya’s therapy dog from the organization’s PCRU K-9 Unit. 

Another man who was completely distraught was unable to continue to function properly and simply kept saying the names of his family members who were missing in the rubble. Once again, members of the PCRU approached him and were able to break him out of his loop and enable him to gain some sort of control over his actions, bringing him from a heightened state of stress to a lower level of stress which would allow him to function like his normal self.”

“This is the power of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit,” Maisel said. “It picks up from the point where other first responders no longer have the tools to cope with the emotional fallout that a highly triggered person may exhibit. We haven’t come to replace any of the services that are currently available here to the family members of those missing in the collapse, or those who escaped but are injured, we came to complement these efforts and add the tools that we have in our repertoire, that have been accumulated throughout the years from our previous missions abroad, or by responding to terror attacks and mass-casualty-incidents in Israel. People sensed that and were very appreciative of our efforts.”

At 4:30 p.m., the teams from United Hatzalah and the IDF Home Front Command joined forces and worked side-by-side in asking the family members of those missing to come and assist them in ascertaining as much knowledge of the layout of the building before it collapsed, and how many people lived in each apartment. For the next five hours, teams of two to three IDF members and PCRU members cataloged all of the details submitted by family members so that the search and rescue teams could have a clear picture of where in the rubble to look for survivors.

“The energy in the room was that of an ongoing and drawn-out trauma,” said Raphael Poch, a member of the PCRU and a spokesperson for United Hatzalah. “No one in that room has closure, and that is something that they direly need. Some people flew or drove more than halfway across the country in order to sit in a communal room, with other family members of missing people, whom they don’t know, in order to perhaps hear good news about their loved one. Seeing the faces of hopeful despondency on the faces of pretty much everyone there was simply heartbreaking.” 

Poch added: “That is exactly the purpose of our mission with the PCRU. It is our job to show these people that they are not alone and that they can help in the search efforts. By working with the IDF and with the PCRU they provided essential information that may help lead to more rescues. In addition, we reminded people that they were not alone, and they would not go through this tragedy alone. They had literally hundreds of people going through the exact same thing right next to them. We, therefore, encouraged people to comfort one another and be there for one another. That in of itself is a type of healing and something which we can all do.”

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