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Search and Rescue
By Blair S. Walker

A faculty member experienced in disaster aftermath operations led efforts to find life—and hope—beneath the rubble.

The team found the living by guiding rescue dogs through jangled concrete, steel, and glass, and quietly listening for human voices.

G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., combed the smoky remnants of Manhattan’s World Trade Center following 9/11. She spent a month sloshing through mold-contaminated sections of New Orleans flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

So after a devastating temblor trapped thousands of victims under toppled Port-au-Prince buildings, Cantwell correctly guessed she’d be heading to Haiti. It’s what’s expected of Cantwell, a medical manager for Urban Search and Rescue Team/South Florida Task Force 2, as well as chief of pediatric critical care medicine with the Miller School’s Department of Pediatrics.

“The stench of the city was horrible—there was death and destruction everywhere,” Cantwell recalls of arriving in Port-au- Prince. “They were just scooping bodies up with front loaders and burning them at the roadside, doing their best to get rid of the devastation.”

Not that Cantwell spent a lot of time taking in such otherworldly horror; she and her search and rescue colleagues were fixated on finding the living. They did so by guiding rescue dogs through mini-mountains of jangled concrete, steel, and glass, and quietly listening for human voices.

G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., chief of pediatric critical care medicine at the Miller School, deployed to Haiti in her capacity as medical manager for Urban Search and Rescue Team/South Florida Task Force 2.

“This was actually the first deployment that the entire team had ever been on that had live victims,” says Cantwell, who unhesitatingly burrowed into collapsed buildings when necessary.

During one occasion, Cantwell was surrounded by tons of precariously balanced rubble when the earth lurched sickeningly under her feet—an aftershock. She and her fellow rescuers held their breaths, relying on prayer and telekinesis to keep debris from thundering down on them and the victims they were trying to reach.

The wreckage shifted ominously but—to the relief of Cantwell and her other team members—stayed put.

Feeling robust post-quake tremors ripple through Port-au-Prince “was just the most bizarre, eerie feeling,” says Cantwell, who returned to Miami unscathed. To relieve tension, she recalls, rescuers often sang Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” during aftershocks.

The City of Miami is the sponsoring agency of South Florida Task Force 2, an 80-member search-andrescue team that deploys to calamity sites with two physicians and four medical specialists. The Department of Pediatrics sent two team members to Port-au-Prince, with Cantwell being joined by Jorge Hernandez, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics who was on his first deployment. Beyond its medical component, South Florida Task Force 2 is primarily composed of paramedics and firefighters; it also includes canine handlers and search dogs.

Medical team members “take care of the task force members,” says Cantwell, who’s been doing rescue work since the 1990s. “We go because the work is very dangerous. The purpose is to have on-site care should something go wrong.”

Once injured victims are extricated, Cantwell’s focus shifts to them. She and her teammates managed to free several earthquake survivors during her time in Haiti.

“That’s the culmination of everything that you train for in urban search and rescue,” Cantwell says. “It was like—‘Wow!’ I mean, it was almost like the deployment of a lifetime.”

Still, she can’t shake the feeling that the efforts of her rescue team made only a tiny dent in Port-au-Prince’s staggering misery. “I can’t even comprehend what the people of that city are facing now,” Cantwell says.