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Specially trained dogs have been a crucial part of the search and rescue operation at the site of a deadly Florida condo collapse last week — and continue to comb the rubble along with hundreds of rescue workers.
“I believe we got there within 45 minutes of the actual collapse,” Nichole Notte, a dog handler who has been at the site with her pup, Dig, from the get-go, told The Post Wednesday.
“This is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Notte said. “I mentally had to gather myself because it was such a shocking sight. I had to stop and pause and think, ‘OK, we need to stay safe.’”
Dig, who is 12, is on his last deployment at the ruins of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, which collapsed early Thursday morning killing at least 18 with 145 people still reported as missing, officials said.
“This is his most heartfelt job,” Notte said.
Notte is battalion chief for the Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue squad, and has been working with Dig for 10 years, she said.
Teams of workers from as far off as Israel and Mexico are part of a rotating crew of workers who continue to sift through the pile of debris around the clock on a rotating basis — and canines have been there from the start.
At a briefing Wednesday morning, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said relatives of the missing have asked if the search dogs “have been active.”
“I made it a point to visit with several of the handlers, and, yes indeed, they are very, very active,” Burkett told reporters.
“We have two sets of dogs there,” the mayor said. “We have dogs that are looking for people who are alive and we have dogs who are looking for people who have passed on. And they rotate those dogs in and out.”
Notte said Dig is a live search dog and has been working on the pile in spurts over 12 to 16-hour shifts since the building collapsed.
“Dogs are fast,” she said. “They can run across a pile. They can get into small crevices easier. They can move along the pile without shifting rubble because they’re a lot lighter than us. And they are so fast with their nose. It’s what they do naturally.”
Burkett said during the Wednesday briefing that high winds at the site do not hamper the dogs’ efforts — but Notte said the rain that is pelting the region and the terrain at the scene does have an impact.
“I can tell you that this tragedy, in particular, has been extra difficult for him to search,” she said. “The angle of it, the debris that’s there. It’s very rough terrain, and it will affect him emotionally because if he feels like he can’t do something it will depress him a little bit. But that’s why we have a whole spectrum of dogs with us here.”
“The rain always puts a more difficult twist on things,” Notte added. “It becomes a lot more slippery for us to navigate, as well as the dogs. When it’s raining, what it tends to do is push smell downard, so the smell of a person doesn’t come out.”
“So, there are a lot more challenges when it’s raining out, when it’s smokey, when it’s humid,” she said. “It changes the scent pattern so much.”
Notte also said that the search dogs also burn out quickly, and Dig needs a break after about 15 minutes before going back to work, particularly in the Florida heat.
But Notte, who is not allowed to say if Dig has found any survivors, said the pair is in for the long haul.
“I’m delirious at this point,” she said. “But the motivation is seeing all these pictures on the wall here. The motivation is people calling me and texting me saying, ‘Hey, I know this person there. I know that person there. Let me know if you find them.’”
“So, yes, I’m tired,” she added. “Yes, I’m emotionally drained. But I still have this inner energy to bring anything I can to these people.”
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