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Doctor collecting photos from debris of collapsed condo

July 1, 2021 GMT
Items are seen at a make-shift memorial outside St. Joseph Catholic Church near the Champlain Towers South condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Items are seen at a make-shift memorial outside St. Joseph Catholic Church near the Champlain Towers South condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Items are seen at a make-shift memorial outside St. Joseph Catholic Church near the Champlain Towers South condo, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Dr. Benjamin Abo is collecting pieces of a puzzle from the debris of a partially collapsed Florida condominium building and getting glimpses into the lives of the people who lived there.

The EMS physician arrived at the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside on Thursday morning along with scores of first responders looking to find survivors. At least 18 people have been killed and more than 140 are missing.

“On the first morning that I was here, came out from the garage and looked down and we see a wedding photo. Obviously from ’70s, maybe early ’80s, in a synagogue,” said Abo, who is the medical director for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Urban Search and Rescue Team.

His primary responsibility is to provide medical care for a team of 80-plus firefighters, paramedics, engineers, and search and rescue dogs that have been working for the past week at the site.

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Abo set the photo aside, meaning to try to bring it later to a local synagogue.

But as the search through the layers of concrete and metal have continued over the past week, Abo and others kept finding photos that he knew needed saving.

“And then all of the sudden we find some more wedding photos, or a bar mitzvah photo, or some vacation photos,” Abo said Wednesday. “And it really started building up. And then when we started getting access to other rooms, bedrooms and living rooms and things like that, you really start to piece together who was here.”

Abo has spent his career helping others when disaster strikes, responding to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But this building collapse has been different for him, because he personally knows four people who remain missing.

Many of the items — mostly photos, but also diplomas, passports and IDs — are stored in boxes near the collapse site. He’s also been collecting toys, some of which have been placed at a public memorial along a fence near the building.

“One of the things that is over there that really hit home for me was one of those old Hess toy trucks that used to come out every holiday season. My grandfather used to get me one every year,” Abo said. “You just see this and you’re just like thinking about who would have been playing with it.”

The plan is to find a way to get those precious memories back into the hands of family members. Abo is hoping to get help, maybe from volunteers or archivists, to organize the items and help identify the families or owners.

“Maybe I’m able to reunite a victim in this to give them a piece because they lost everything,” Abo said. “But maybe I’m also able to give families some closure.”