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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Gainesville Fire Rescue team helps with efforts in the Surfside Condo collapse

Three UF alumni are missing following the collapse

Florida Task Force 8 members bow their heads in front of a memorial wall in Surfside, Florida. Gainesville Fire Rescue sent eight members to Surfside to aid in rescue efforts after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium on June 24.
Florida Task Force 8 members bow their heads in front of a memorial wall in Surfside, Florida. Gainesville Fire Rescue sent eight members to Surfside to aid in rescue efforts after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium on June 24.

When Stefanie Alvarez talks about her boyfriend, Moises Rodan, she emphasizes his empathy.

Once, he was driving down University Avenue in a heavy downpour when he spotted an elderly woman at an uncovered bus stop. Alvarez recalls how Rodan pulled over, escorted the woman in the vehicle with an umbrella and drove her home. 

Rodan is one of three UF alumni missing after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside, Florida. A few days after the collapse, a team of specialists from Gainesville and neighboring counties were deployed to Surfside to aid in rescue efforts. They returned home Sunday. 

Alvarez said Rodan was a positive person who always wanted to do good for others. He would go to the McDonald’s on University Avenue, buy dozens of burgers at a time and give them to homeless people nearby. 

“He would do this around three times a month and wouldn’t tell anyone about it,” she said. “Sometimes I would find out about it, but it was something that filled him with joy — it was something he loved to do.” 

Alvarez said Rodan’s greatest accomplishment in life was graduating from UF, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in May. 

The 28-year-old UF alumnus lived on the fourth floor of Champlain Towers in unit 403. 

Alvarez received a call from Rodan’s mother, who told her about the building collapse. She immediately went to Miami to see the site in person. His parents, who were in Venezuela, flew to Miami to find their son. 

“Hopefully there is a miracle that someone is still alive, hopefully, it is my Moises,” she said. “We already think he passed away, and that it was an immediate impact...and that gives us peace.” 

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A photo of Moises Rodan, a UF alumnus, hangs on a memorial wall in Surfside, Florida on Saturday, July 3, 2021. Rodan is among the more than 100 people still unaccounted for after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building on June 24.

Rabbi Berl Goldman, who serves as the director of the Chabad Jewish Center, said Rodan served on the Chabad UF student board for three years.

“Moises is known as a very humble and incredible friend to anybody that knows him,” Goldman said. “He had a million-dollar smile and he’s just really a humbled, genuine, young man.” 

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Five floors above Rodan in unit 804 were Nicole “Nicky” Langesfeld and Luis Sadovnic. Sadovnic was also Venezuelan and married Langesfeld, who was Argentinian, in May. The pair met at UF — now, they’re among the missing. 

Sadovnic graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in food and resource economics with a specialization in international business. After leaving UF, Langesfeld went on to graduate from the University of Miami School of Law in 2019 and was working as a full-time lawyer at Reed Smith. 

The two were also involved with the UF’s Chabad Jewish Center.

“They were a model couple,” Rabbi Goldman said. He said their love was like a fairytale.

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A photo of Nicole "Nicky" Langesfeld and Luis Sadovnic hangs on a memorial wall in Surfside, Florida on Saturday, July 3, 2021. Langesfeld and Sadovnic are two UF alumni among the more than 100 people still unaccounted for after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building on June 24.

President Joe Biden met with families of victims in his visit to Surfside on July 1, including Martin Langesfeld, the brother of Nicky Langesfeld. 

On June 27, Gainesville Fire Rescue sent eight of its highly trained Urban Search and Rescue Specialists in an effort to locate missing people in the rubble of the 12-story condominium. 

The eight GFR specialists are part of a broader rescue team, Florida Task Force-8. The team also has rescue specialists from Marion County Fire Rescue and Ocala Fire Rescue. 

GFR Interim Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Hillhouse said these rescuers are trained for state catastrophes and emergencies, such as hurricanes, structural collapses and vehicle rescues. 

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Police block off the area in front of the Champlain Towers South building, which stands between two other condominiums, on Thursday, July 1, 2021. The Champlain building partially collapsed on June 24, and rescue teams from across the state were sent to Surfside, Florida to aid in the search for missing people.

The eight Florida task forces formed after 9/11.

Marion County Fire Rescue spokesperson James Lucas said 29 members of FLTF-8 were deployed to Surfside. The team worked 12-hour rotations — noon to midnight — until they left Sunday. 

In these shifts, rescuers used jackhammers and saws to pull through debris. They also had microphones to listen for voices.

“The work is very physically, mentally and emotionally taxing,” Lucas said. 

After their shifts, FLTF-8 members slept in tents among other rescuers that were deployed to the collapse site. The tent camp is equipped with food, water, personal protection equipment and rescue tools, according to a GFR Facebook post

Hillhouse said FLTF-8 made progress in their search efforts since they started at noon on June 28, recovering multiple bodies at the site. 

As of July 5, 27 people are confirmed dead and 118 remain missing. 

Hillhouse said it meant a lot for GFR to be part of the search efforts in Surfside.

“You get into the emergency services business because you want to help people,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to save everybody, but hopefully they will be able to bring closure to some families during that recovery effort.” 

While FLTF-8 was in Surfside, the team was ‘positive’ and ‘upbeat,’ focusing on the rescue mission, but there’s always a human element of sorrow in their work, Lucas said. 

“Many of the men and women that are down there right now have children of their own,” Lucas said. “So it was especially hard when the team recovered the bodies of two children.”

Dr. Benjamin Abo, an EMS physician and GFR medical director, helped maintain the well-being of FLTF-8 while in Surfside. He catered to their mental health while mending any physical injuries that rescuers may have suffered on duty. 

“I was basically working 22 out of 24 hours a day,” he said.

The eight GFR responders have begun four days of rehabilitation to reset and destress before going back to their normal emergency response jobs, according to a GFR press release. 

Among those coming together to help Surfside are volunteers from across Miami-Dade and Broward County who work out of Casa de Jesus, or CASA, church.

About every two hours, volunteers are escorted by police to offer food, drinks and prayers to rescuers. The operation has been set up to give aid “since day 1,” Jessica Guzman, a volunteer with Tabernáculo de Su Presencia in Kendall, Florida, said. 

Mary Djan, 56, a resident of Surfside for about 20 years and former immigration paralegal who worked on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center around the time of 9/11, said her community is not giving up hope. 

“When you give up, when you have no hope, when your hope diminishes — that’s when you’re suffering,” she said. “I was there in the World Trade Center, so I know. Life is precious.” 

Contact Jake Reyes, Julia Cooper and Isabella Barnet at jreyes@alligator.org, jcooper@alligator.org and lbarnet@alligator.org. Follow then on Twitter @frlJakeReyes, @JuliaArinCooper and @lbarnet@alligator.org.

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