Members of New Jersey Task Force 1 deployed to Surfside, Florida, on July 1 to help with the rescue and now recovery effort after the Champlain Towers South collapse. As of Tuesday, the death toll was at 95. (COURTESY CHRIS VALERIAN)

By LAUREN PEACOCK
For Montclair Local

Chris Valerian hasn’t been getting much sleep lately, maybe four to five hours “on a good night.”

Since the start of the month, Valerian, a physician as well as the medical director for the Montclair Ambulance Unit, has been on the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, helping search-and-rescue efforts, digging through rubble. Now, three weeks after the June 24 collapse, authorities say their work has moved to a recovery operation.

It’s a sad, sometimes grisly endeavor. As of Tuesday, the death toll was at 95, with 11 people as yet unaccounted for. Among those lost were entire families, including some children.

“You’re doing back-breaking work in the Miami heat,” Valerian said by phone Monday. “There’s dust flying everywhere, the constant smell of dead bodies, and the occasional discovery of severed body parts.” 

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Valerian deployed to the disaster site as part of New Jersey Task Force 1, a FEMA urban search-and-rescue team that operates under the authority of the New Jersey State Police and state Office of Emergency Management. According to The Associated Press, the task force sent 70 members who specialize in 21 technically skilled positions as well as 10 ground support personnel to Surfside. 

Valerian has worked with the task force on several past missions, including to the sites of hurricanes and building collapses. He was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and at the site of the Tropica Hotel parking garage collapse in Atlantic City in 2003. He’s taken part in search-and-rescue efforts in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. 

Chris Valerian stands in front of the Champlain Towers South collapse, where he and other members of New Jersey Task Force 1 have been helping with rescue and recovery operations. (COURTESY CHRIS VALERIAN)

“This is what we train for, but this is what we haven’t seen a lot over the past decade,” he said.

Valerian is a resident of Glen Ridge, and has been a member of the task force for more than 20 years. He describes the task force’s work in Surfside, alongside rescuers from throughout the country, as 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Each member of the task force does a 12-hour shift, from midnight to noon, or noon to midnight. Valerian is on the latter shift. He’s thankful members are being lodged on a cruise ship, because they usually stay in tents and aren’t able to shower. But the schedule doesn’t leave much time for rest.

“We get on the bus at 10 a.m., we’re at the site at 10:45, take preliminary measures like security briefing, and then start the physical labor. After the shift, we have to sign out, take the bus back, and get ready for bed, etc. It’s probably already 2 or 3 until you get to sleep,” he said. 

Valerian has been an ER doctor for more than 20 years, and has learned to compartmentalize the impact of a tragedy — to focus on the job at hand, then cope with the emotions it brings when he can. In Surfside, he’s found personal items such as a child’s doll and its dresses, or family pictures. 

“We walk by the families lined up on the street on our way to the site. Once you see their faces, you tell yourself you are going to do whatever you can to make sure you can bring them some closure,” he said.

Valerian described the circumstances of the collapse as “unimaginable.” 

“It’s such an overwhelming environment,” he said. It’s hard to understand, he said, “unless you’re here and you take in the smells, the stuff floating in the air, you come home at night and you’re covered in dust and your hair is coarse because it’s been exposed to all the materials out there, etc. The photos don’t do it justice.”

But the people on site, Valerian said, “are the best at what they do and 100% dedicated to helping the victims and their families.”

“That’s really what keeps us going,” he said.

The remains of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida. (COURTESY CHRIS VALERIAN)