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NEWS | Aug. 31, 2021

Navy Reserve Officer Thanked by President for Emergency Response to Surfside Collapse

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sarah Horne, Navy Region Southeast RCC Jacksonville

SURFSIDE, Fla., — It was 1:25 a.m. on Thursday, June 24. The Champlain Towers South condominium was just one among dozens of other buildings set on the scenic, sub-tropical coast, overlooking calm waves shining beneath a full moon.

Within seconds that calm was split by the thundering collapse of most of the building, destroying 55 units and burying numerous sleeping tenants within.

Living just a few blocks away, Lt. Cmdr. Zev Neuwirth, a Navy Reserve officer attached to Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) Miami, received a call from his volunteer emergency response group, the Hatzalah Emergency Medical Service. The group, comprised of neighborhood members, provides volunteer first-response care for the beach-front community. Many members, including Neuwirth, knew residents of the Champlain Towers South. He grabbed his go-bag and was out the door within minutes.

“I arrived to the scene, and there’s smoke billowing out of the structure’s collapse,” said Neuwirth, who works in Internal Medicine as a Hospitalist and Primary Care Physician in his civilian career. “We had fire personnel scattered throughout. People are looking through rubble, trying to pull survivors from the building, but it’s dark, it’s smoky — it’s a little bit chaotic.”

Neuwirth said his first task was to get a sense of the scale of the catastrophe and then direct resources to people in immediate need.

“My initial response was obviously to report and assess the situation to see if there was anything I could do with regards to victims and personnel,” Neuwirth said. “The next thing to do was basically create an immediate, forward-operating base for personnel, which is what I did.”

A reunification center was set up to help the people of Champlain Towers South and residents of the surrounding buildings who were also evacuated. In collaboration with a local pharmacy, Neuwirth worked to provide over 150 prescription medications to those affected, helping them to avoid resulting health problems.

“These people were literally getting pulled from their beds, coming in with only the shirts on their backs,” said Neuwirth.  “Many were already being treated for various, chronic medical conditions — diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid and cardiac issues — and they had no ID’s, no money, and no medication with them. I carry an extreme amount of medicines to cover a variety of medical emergencies and chronic issues, so we set up a separate clinic to help these patients.”

Lt. Cmdr. Neuwirth also personally treated over 30 first responders suffering from injuries and dehydration. He remained on scene for almost three weeks, continuously providing medical treatment for patients and displaced survivors at the reunification center.

“I was on site pretty much 24/7 except for the brief time I’d go home and grab a bite to eat or take a shower,” said Neuwirth. “Then I’d reestablish myself on site and support the first responders who would come off the mounds, exhausted with dehydration. I’d get them hooked up to IVs for fluids and deal with minor injuries.”

Neuwirth leveraged his experience as officer in charge of Fourth Civil Affairs Group, Force Headquarters Group, which provides medical support to the U.S. Marine Corps, to provide a fast and efficient response to assist hundreds of his neighbors and fellow first responders.

“The clinic was set up as a rehab, military style, with cots and everything we needed to keep them going,” he said.

One week into rescue effort, President Joe Biden visited the disaster site and witnessed ongoing recovery operations firsthand. During his visit, the President personally thanked Neuwirth for his efforts, a gesture Neuwirth said filled him with a renewed sense of purpose.

“It was an honor, and it was very humbling,” Neuwirth described, “He is my commander-in-chief. He was compassionate, caring, and understanding. When I spoke to him, there was a heart. It was comforting. I was able to bring that comfort to other rescuers that I shared this with, as well as the families.”

Ultimately, 98 people have been confirmed dead in the Champlain Towers South collapse, a number which includes friends and family of the rescue teams that cried, sweat, and bled while sorting through thousands of pounds of concrete and corrugated steel. Neuwirth said he is no exception to the pain that struck the tight-knit community of Surfside.

“I personally had numerous patients of mine there, as well as associates and friends,” he said. “Dr. Brad Cohen, who was a friend of mine as well, unfortunately perished during the collapse. It was more than just responding to a collapse, but responding to my neighbors, my friends and relatives.”

Neuwirth said both the loss of so many from his community, and his ability to help the survivors, reminded him of his inspiration to join the medical field.  Once the CEO and president of a jewelry manufacturing company, Neuwirth lost his wife of twelve and a half years to her battle against a malignant osteoblastoma — an event which Neuwirth said spurred a profound professional change.

“Having experienced the loss of a loved one kind of triggered all those emotions,” said Neuwirth. “One of my dreams was to always give back, which is why I got into medicine in the first place.”

Neuwirth described his actions in the aftermath of the Champlain Towers South collapse as reflective of his desire to be of service to his tight-knit community and the nation he calls home.

“One of the things that I wanted to give back to was my country,” he said. “My country has always been there for me. Becoming a doctor and being able to serve and give back to my country — there is no greater reward.”