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First responders struggle with trauma, 1 year after the Surfside condo collapse

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

A year ago yesterday, 98 people died when a condominium building collapsed in Surfside, Fla. Some first responders who searched for the victims are still struggling with the trauma. From member station WLRN in Miami, Veronica Zaragovia reports on efforts to help heal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARIOL LAGE: Is anybody there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

LAGE: Is anybody there?

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: In this police body cam video, the Surfside officers who arrived minutes after the Champlain Towers South building collapsed call out searching for survivors. They found few. That weighs on Miami-Dade Fire Department Captain Eddy Alarcon.

EDDY ALARCON: We train to save lives.

ZARAGOVIA: Alarcon says a close friend who also responded tells him every time he talks about it, it's like ripping a Band-Aid off.

ALARCON: And this is a tough guy. He's a really tough guy. So I know we all got affected. I don't discourage anybody from, you know, seeking help, talking to somebody about this. I highly encourage them. I have just been truly blessed to have a family that is just so supportive that I can let loose on.

ZARAGOVIA: Alarcon says he feels better when he plays with his band of fellow firefighters called Fire Brigade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FIRE BRIGADE: (Singing) It'll be all right. And it'll be OK.

ZARAGOVIA: At a ceremony yesterday in Surfside, responders who'd come from throughout Florida, the U.S. and Israel heard from Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: For so many of the first responders who searched the pile as if they were looking for their own loved ones, we know you, too, continue to wrestle with the memories of those days. And we remain committed to ensuring that you have the tools you need to heal and recover.

ZARAGOVIA: Yossi Harlig, a rabbi, is a chaplain with the Miami-Dade Police Department. He's bonded with officers regardless of their religion.

YOSSI HARLIG: One of the biggest challenge (ph) is that people don't open up. But they look at me as an outsider, so to speak, so they're more comfortable opening up because I'm not a paid officer. I'm a volunteer chaplain.

ZARAGOVIA: Harlig says often, he doesn't have answers. He doesn't know why the building collapsed. But he listens to responders, and he says that seems to help a lot. Antonio Marciante is a captain in the Surfside Police Department.

ANTONIO MARCIANTE: June 24th will be a day that the men and women of this department will never forget. We worked for weeks. A lot of our officers knew people in that building.

ZARAGOVIA: One way Surfside Police are relieving some of the lingering trauma is with the help of a new officer who's part of their department's stress management and suicide prevention program.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Without further ado, Officer Mike.

(APPLAUSE)

ZARAGOVIA: Officer Mike is a cream-colored goldendoodle. Marciante says he sees hardened officers light up at the station when they interact with Mike.

MARCIANTE: I know we call him a station dog. He really has become a town dog. Many days, we walk to have lunch. I can tell you, if we want to have lunch at 12:30, we have to leave at 11 because we get stopped by residents and children and visitors.

ZARAGOVIA: Officer Mike is one small way to relieve the stress in a community that's still feeling loss a year after the condo building collapsed. For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "ZIONSVILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Veronica Zaragovia reports on state government for KUT. She's reported as a legislative relief news person with the Associated Press in South Dakota and has contributed reporting to NPR, PRI's The World, Here & Now and Latino USA, the Agence France Presse, TIME in Hong Kong and PBS NewsHour, among others. She has two degrees from Columbia University, and has dedicated much of her adult life to traveling, learning languages and drinking iced coffee.