Miami-Dade Fire Rescue released a report late Monday identifying a woman trapped under the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Florida, as Theresa Velasquez.
It marks the first time county officials have provided details about the attempted rescue effort triggered by the June 24, 2021, collapse of the 12-story condo that killed 98 people, one of the worst building disasters in modern U.S. history.
The report, which was dated April 25, recounted how first responders battled carbon monoxide and electrical shocks from moisture in the electrical lines of the power tools they operated to cut through the concrete in an attempt to reach the victim.
“For over two months, I spoke to the crews who worked directly underneath the rubble in the parking garage area, as well as crews who worked on the debris field pile,” Miami-Dade Deputy Fire Chief Raied S. Jadallah wrote in the report.
“During these visits we would discuss details of the operation, lessons learned, as well as the crews’ mental and emotional well-being,” he said. “At times, the details of the operation were at the forefront of the conversations shedding a light on the unsurmountable efforts made by our MDFR crews to find life under the rubble.”
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Back in December, USA TODAY and The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, first reported about the attempted rescue of the person in the rubble — one of the few confirmed people found alive. That report identified the survivor as Valeria Barth Gomez, 14.
Reporters named the girl based on public records that said the survivor was with her parents, Luis Fernando Barth Tobar, 51, and Catalina Ramirez Gomez, 45, in unit 204 at the time of the collapse while on vacation from Colombia.
USA TODAY additionally interviewed structural engineers who said the unit sat just above the place in the garage where the rescue operation took place and that it was likely someone from that unit who was trapped.
Further records indicated that a fire broke out during the rescue operation in the location where first responders were cutting with tools. Valeria’s body was burned, according to medical examiner reports.
Both Valeria and her parents died in the wake of the collapse.
But Jadallah wrote that the evidence pointed to Valasquez, 36, as the victim because the person responders talked to during the rescue attempt spoke English with no discernable accent. The report also notes that the survivor did not cry or call out to her parents as someone younger might do, and the location of her body was consistent with where the rescue operation took place.
Valasquez was in unit 304 – just above Barth.
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The report disputed USA TODAY’s reporting, such as coverage of the tools used in search and rescue operations, and that the rescuers caused the fire, adding: “Spontaneous fires were not uncommon as damaged electric vehicles (EV) were igniting during operations.” Flames may also have been fed by afternoon winds.
At no point does the report say that rescuers asked the victim her name.
In an email to USA TODAY, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said its department has an “obligation to the families of the victims to provide them with the facts that were obtained based on a thorough and comprehensive review of the process, procedures, and evidence.
“Although this process takes time, it is rooted in our continued commitment and dedication to the families and to our community for truth and transparency. They have and will continue to be our priority,” the email added.
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