The faint and calm voice of a woman trapped in the hulking pile of concrete and twisted steel could be heard for several hours after the collapse of the Surfside, Florida, condominium last June.
“Eventually we didn’t hear her voice anymore,” Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said one week after the June 24 collapse.
An 11-page memo released publicly by the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department last week said the “voice in the rubble” belonged to Theresa Velasquez, a Live Nation music executive who was 36 when she perished, along with her parents.
They were among the 98 people killed in the disaster at the Champlain Towers South building last summer.
The memo, which described precarious search conditions and the emotional toll of the quest for “life under the rubble,” said rescue dogs “picked up a live victim scent” underneath the condo’s parking garage about 6:30 a.m.
Deputy Fire Chief Raied Jadallah wrote the memo – dated April 25 – was a rebuttal to a newspaper story that suggested the voice in the rubble belonged to a 14-year-old who also died in the collapse. The memo – first reported by CBS Miami – disputed details in the December USA Today story.
“We are currently reviewing the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue report,” Lark-Marie Anton, a spokeswoman for Gannett, which owns USA Today, said in a statement. “The facts and the sourcing in our story are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”
Four survivors rescued, one later died
Jadallah’s memo offers new details into the agonizing hours and days in which relatives, rescue crews and city officials held out hope of finding survivors in the heap of mangled air conditioners, razor-sharp metal bars and shattered concrete walls and balconies.
The memo described high carbon monoxide levels at the site and the perils of using electrical power tools in pools of water.
“While working in standing water, rescue crews were electrically shocked as they operated the jackhammers due to the moisture in the electrical lines,” Jadallah wrote.
For the first five hours, the memo said, rescuers removed survivors trapped in balconies, staircases and the parking garage. Ultimately a total of 37 survivors were rescued.
Airbag lifts, hydraulic tools, pneumatic shoring devices and other instruments were used to rescue four survivors trapped under the rubble, according to the memo.
The four survivors pulled from the rubble included a 15-year-old boy whose hand and fingers were seen wiggling through the wreckage by a man walking his dog, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokeswoman Erika Benitez said Saturday.
The boy’s mother also was rescued but later died from her injuries.
A woman and her teenage daughter – who lived on the ninth floor of the tower – were also rescued from the rubble, Benitez said. The daughter was found first and pointed rescuers to a spot about 30 feet away where they located her mother. The two had sustained severe injuries but recovered, she said. The girl’s father was among the fatalities.
In a statement after the memo was released publicly, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said “rescuers spared no effort in this search and rescue operation, and it is important for these first responders to understand the full scope of their efforts.”
“Our hearts remain with all the families of the victims, and we hope they can find some solace in knowing that every possible effort was made to rescue their loved ones,” the statement said.
Trapped woman sounded calm to rescuers
In interviews, Jadallah wrote, he learned rescue crews “never had a whole or a long conversation with the woman in the debris pile.” The communication usually lasted “a few seconds at a time.” At the time, a fire official said they heard the woman for several hours. Some rescuers believed the woman could have been as far as 10 to 20 feet from a massive concrete slab where the operation began.
“Rescue crews explained that the only times they could communicate with the woman was when all operations ceased, and everyone was silenced,” the memo said. “Even the faintest whisper from the rescue crews or sloshing in the standing water negated any ability to hear the woman.”
Benitez said the communication was brief, the woman’s voice barely audible.
“They would tell her, ‘If you can still hear us, if you’re still with us, tap two or three times’ so they could hear the vibrations through the debris,” Benitez said of the rescuers. “That’s how they were communicating with her towards the end. She was obviously getting weak and fading in and out.”
It’s not clear whether the woman was asked her name.
“They had like a few times they could hear her clearly and then a few times where she wasn’t audible,” Benitez said. “She didn’t have the strength to be loud enough to be heard. So we didn’t get her name but it doesn’t mean that she wasn’t asked her name.”
Jadallah wrote that rescuers said the voice was that of a woman, not a child. One rescuer believed he heard the woman was in apartment No. 204 – which housed a 14-year-old girl from Colombia and her parents. Two other rescuers believed they heard it was No. 304, where Velazquez was visiting and staying with her parents.
Rescuers told the deputy chief the woman spoke only English to them, sounded like a native speaker and had no accent. She told them she was stuck between two mattresses or between a wall and a mattress. She said she had been visiting her parents, and could not see them around her. She remained calm when communicating as rescuers changed shifts.
“It’s very unfortunate for all of them not to have had that rescue,” Benitez said of first responders.
“They stayed on until they no longer heard the voice anymore… I think it was one of the things that was most upsetting to them. They never gave up on this person despite the conditions being so precarious.”
Remains found on day search transitioned to recovery effort
Velasquez’s family confirmed to authorities that she had been staying with her parents in apartment No. 304, according to the memo. An uncle of the 14-year-old girl in the other apartment told Jadallah his niece spoke English with an accent but that Spanish was her primary language. The girl had a “very distinct high-pitched voice.”
On July 8, two weeks after the condo tower crumbled, Velasquez’s remains were located in the rubble, Jadallah wrote. That same day search and rescue efforts transitioned to a recovery operation.
Velasquez was identified July 17.
Her parents, Julio Cesar Velasquez and Angela Velasquez, were also confirmed dead by Miami-Dade officials.
After the collapse, her brother, David Velasquez, had posted on Facebook that his parents, 66 and 60, respectively, lived in the building. His sister was visiting them.
David Velasquez, through his wife, declined comment to CNN.
“I trust what is in that report and the people that made that determination,” he told CBS Miami.
He added, “There is no way to know 100 percent but it seems like the logical conclusion.”
Jadallah wrote that he informed Velasquez’s brother of his findings in late December.
Velazquez, a senior vice president at Live Nation, was named in Billboard’s 2020 list of “industry-shaping” LGBTQ music executives.
Live Nation President and CEO Michael Rapino on June 25 called Velasquez “a beloved friend, daughter, sister, and co-worker.”
“Sending love to everyone in Surfside – we need miracles tonight,” Rapino wrote on Twitter hours after the collapse.
More than nine months after her remains were found, Jadallah wrote in his memo: “This report documents the actions taken and the testimonial and physical evidence gathered leading to identifying the female voice under the rubble as that of Theresa Velasquez.”