Surfside building collapse crew looks for stranded pets to reunite with families

SURFSIDE, Fla. -- As crews continue to search for victims among the rubble of the collapsed 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, officials reassure families that they are also on the lookout for their cherished pets.

Some people, along with their pets, were plucked from their balconies following the disaster, but sadly, others are still stranded in the standing part of the tower when their owners were forced to quickly evacuate.

"My bed started to move from side to side [and] my balcony doors opened on their own. It sounded like thunder that just wouldn't stop," recalled Susana Alvarez.

Alvarez lived on the 10th floor of Champlain Tower South. When she was forced to run for her life, her cat Mia ran to hide, WFOR reported.

"She hid under the bed all the time and that's where she is now," Alvarez said. "During the first tremor, that's what she did, she went straight under the bed."

RELATED: Residents describe narrowly escaping Florida condo collapse: 'I thought we are going to die'

At the worst time of her life, Alvarez and others don't have their pets to keep them calm, and it is weighing heavily on the pet owners who had to leave them behind.

"The guilt I feel for is horrible, for leaving her there. I see her little face, I feel like I'm the devil to her. I feel like I took her to that building and there she is trapped," Alvarez said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday that at least three sweeps have been conducted, some by camera, at a portion of the complex still standing - and that no animals have been found.

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who is also married to a veterinarian, added that the fire department is still helping out while not taking any resources away from human rescue.

Earlier in the week, a firefighter attempted to locate the missing cat of an elderly woman and her daughter who lived on the fourth floor of the still-standing wing of the condominium tower. The two women had escaped with their dog, Rigatoni. But their cat, Coco, was apparently left behind in the scramble to escape.

"Once I realized a cat was still in jeopardy, I called the fire chief," he said.

And so a firefighter hung by the edge of the bucket truck and started calling for Coco.

"What we're doing is looking in through the balconies where doors are open. We're trying to leave food or water on balconies for any pets we know of," Russell said.

Russell said he's since heard of other possible pets that were left behind, including a dog in a crate on the 9th floor and two parrots and the cat on the 10th floor.

"People rely on them for their mental stability and their comfort," Russell said. "To know that they left their animal behind is a tremendous sense of guilt."

Russell is also working with Friends of Miami Animals to help pets and families reunite.

RELATED: 2 more bodies found at collapse site, death toll rising to 24; condo to be demolished Sunday

"They are taking recordings of any information now, like what unit and animal might have been in, what breed, gender, etc. and they're also ready to help for anyone who's been rescued who has a pet they're having trouble taking care of now or a pet that needs help," Russell said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Saturday that at least three sweeps have been conducted, some by camera, at a portion of the complex still standing - and that no animals have been found.

"I very much understand that pets are part of people's families," the mayor said, noting that she, too, has been a pet owner. "My heart goes out to those who fear for their animals, and I just want you to know that additional efforts have been made and are being made."

A flank of Champlain Tower South remains mostly intact, but officials said they would demolish the remaining structure as soon as Sunday - ahead of incoming Tropical Storm Elsa that could put the building precariously at risk of collapsing on its own.

Cava said she informed a contractor of possible locations of missing pets. "They're aware and doing everything that they might do just to make an additional search," she said.

However, the mayor said there would not be a door-to-door search because it was too dangerous to do so.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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