By Kathy Williams.
On June 24th, a 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed, leaving an estimate of about 100 people missing in the rubble.
Search and rescue efforts began immediately at the site to find survivors. On July 7th, after almost two weeks of searching, the hope of finding survivors diminished and the search and rescue efforts transitioned to a recovery operation. This is when MABE Professor Jackie Johnson and her search dog Crush were called in to help.
Johnson, who is a K9 handler for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Tennessee Task Force 1, spent a week at the landfill site with Crush, who is a FEMA certified human remains dog. They worked the noon to midnight shift each day with other recovery teams. There was a total of four dogs on each of two shifts.
“We searched the landfill, which had been moved from the original site,” said Johnson. “They would spread out debris for us to search through, and we rested in between. It was hard because of the extreme heat and long hours.”
Although the working conditions were tough, Johnson still found the experience rewarding as her team was able to recover enough remains to identify the final two victims. All recovery efforts were stopped after those remains were found.
Ninety-seven people died in the Surfside collapse making it tied as the third-deadliest structural engineering failure in United States history.
Johnson has been a K9 handler for FEMA since 2015, and is deployed to help with search and rescue or recovery efforts at big events every one to two years. In 2020, she helped at the Oregon wildfires where her dog inadvertently flushed three horses from behind a barn while searching for human remains; the Task Force was able to feed and water them, essentially saving their lives. In 2018, she spent 11 days searching for survivors trapped in the rubble or remains of those killed after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle.
As hurricanes and other catastrophic events seem to be getting more frequent, Johnson and her dogs are ready to help whenever they are needed.