The elevator door almost closes just as a dusty military boot pushes into the crack and opens it back up again. Amnon, the head of the delegation walks in and stands next to me. On my right is a woman in a swimming costume holding a bag and a towel, and standing next to Amnon is Ronit, the mother of Ilan, one of those missing in the condominium collapse

In the microcosmos descending in the elevator are a tourist on her way to the pool, a mother waiting for her son to be rescued from the rubble of the building in Surfside, and two rescuers who have already been working for 10 days to find him. The hotel where the IDF delegation is staying also hosts the families of the missing. The reality in which we have been living is comprised of layers of life and mourning, of sadness and hope.

On Saturday June 26, 2021, two days after the collapse of the 13-story building which had left dozens of people dead in the rubble, Israel received a request for aid from the United States. The request surprised many including myself. The United States has never asked for assistance from other countries, and now it was asking Israel to send an expert delegation to help manage the disaster. At that moment, it is clear to me that we are about to become the first foreign nation to operate an aid mission on American soil, and so I choose only the best of the best for the delegation.

The operation given the name "Helping Hand" by the Home Front Command includes a 10-strong delegation of engineers, emergency population officers and rescuers from the Command's National Search and Rescue unit, together with senior officers representing the Command, and Foreign Office representative Guy Giladi.  On our way to Ben Gurion Airport, Michael, the unit's architect, sends us the original plans of the building so that we can study them during the flight.

On Saturday evening we fly directly to Miami. Expectations of us are high. We have a lot of experience in disaster management, but what will the world's strongest superpower be able to learn from us? How will our rescuers work with the rescuers from the elite federal unit, Task Forces 1?

"My name is Sarah, I'm Malki's mother. She lives in apartment 212 facing the ocean. I'm so happy you're coming, she is all I have in life, please find her for me."

On the way I receive several messages from Jewish families who have heard that we are coming. They don't just want to encourage us; they want us to look for their loved ones. One of the messages reads, "My name is Sarah, I'm Malki's mother. She lives in apartment 212 facing the ocean. I'm so happy you're coming, she is all I have in life, please find her for me."

We land in the early hours of Sunday morning and put on our IDF uniforms.  Maor Elbaz Starinsky, Israel's Consul General in Miami, who has only been in the job for a week, greets us and takes us to the site. The 'Pile, as the Americans call it, is an apartment building the size of a football pitch, just by the ocean. Some of the apartments are holiday apartments, while others are lived in year-round. The bottom five floors have collapsed into the garage under the building. The rest of the building is piled up seven meters high – layers of concrete, furniture, steel, pictures and books. The reason for the collapse is not clear.

A fire still burns on the north-western edge of the site. Poisonous smoke spreads out over the rubble and the firefighters try to put it out. The West wing of the building, which has not collapsed, remains standing, tall and threatening. The apartments where the rest of the building has ripped off are exposed – cupboards and beds torn in half, air conditioning units attached precariously. The danger of collapse limits us and we cannot work in the area next to the part of the building that still stands because of the danger of another collapse. The collapse of the Twin Towers on the 9/11 rescuers has left a trauma.

There are very few pockets of air remaining between the layers of the building. The local rescue teams are struggling among meters of concrete and steel. At this point we estimate that at the current pace of work in which 6 people have been found among the rubble in three days, the rescue mission will last at least a month and a half.

Becoming one with the site

Florida's TF1 and TF2 rescue units give us a hesitant reception. We feel as if no one asked them if they wanted our help, and they don't seem to know what to do with us.

We split up. My deputy, Elad Edri, takes the population officers, Tal Levi-Diamenstein and Yuval Klein, to the family center so they can prepare the intelligence infrastructure. The two engineers join up with the Americans and start to study the way the building has collapsed. Me and the three rescuers join up with the American search and rescue teams. We have come to "get our hands dirty" not just to give advice.

One of the things that is most confusing for rescuers at a disaster site is the silence. You can't hear anyone calling for help.

I know that within a few days we and the site will become one. We will know exactly where each ceiling of each floor is, and who was sitting where.

One of the things that is most confusing for rescuers at a disaster site is the silence. Rescuers at the site can't hear anyone calling for help and can't see anything amid the destruction. That's why our rescue units teach that you don't leave the site till the last of the rescuers is out. I am infused with that sense of commitment during the preliminary tour of the site and it grows stronger from the knowledge a large number of people are buried under the rubble a few meters below us, and perhaps they are alive.

IDF Lt. Col. Oz Geno working with an American rescue official at the disaster site (Golan Vach)

The local teams' rescue efforts are focused primarily on places where dogs bark. We have a different work method. The time of the collapse at 01:32 in the morning leads us to search for the missing people in the bedrooms, and from the start, we aim to reach them.

Our first challenge is to build an engineering plan of action in line with the population intelligence and to mark on maps the exact spot where those trapped were when the building collapsed. Our next challenge is to persuade the Americans to adopt our methods because this kind of surgical search significantly shortens search and rescue times.

Working conditions on the site are not easy. The half of the building that remains standing is in danger of collapse and bits of concrete and furniture fall from it every few minutes. The heat and humidity are intolerable, and once the area is hit by heavy rains, lightning storms force the rescue teams to take a break every few hours. On top of all that there is a bad smell, and mosquitoes and flies.

The local teams work quietly, quickly and professionally. Their commanders are experienced and perceptive, and the firemen themselves are tough people from all around the United States, with a strong work ethic and high technical capabilities. Their monitoring system is meticulous – entry and exit from the site are recorded via barcode and everyone that leaves the site has to clean and disinfect their shoes. Control of personnel is absolute. After just a few hours the Americans tell us that there are clear boundaries, that you cannot cross from one side of the site to the other. That of course drives the Israelis crazy.

We use the Americans' rescue equipment: saws, drills, and especially pickaxes. The work is extremely physical, and by the end of the day our muscles are sore from head to toe. The Israeli rescuers are at a very high level and don't fall from their local counterparts. "REBAR" [short for reinforcing bar – the steel wires used in reinforced concrete] is the most common cry heard throughout the day. A steel cutting tool is brought over quickly, the steel is cut and work continues. We have to wear masks with special filters all the time because of the smoke and polluting particles in the air.

The Israeli rescue team at the site (Golan Vach)

The Israeli population officers arrive at the center set up for the families of the missing. There are around 300 relatives in the hall, around half of them English speakers and the other half Spanish speakers. They are angry and in pain. They can't come to terms with the situation and hold on to the hope that their loved ones are still alive. The police have put together all of the information about missing persons. We want to get to that database in order to build intelligence, but the local police protocol forbids collaboration with external private elements.

We decide to gather all the information anew from the families. Elad, who is the head of the Haifa district as a career officer, introduces Tal and Yuval to the families. "Hi, we've come from Israel to help you, but now we need your help."

The fact that we are there gives the families enormous hope and within minutes a long queue of people are waiting to answer our questions while releasing some of their sorrow and pain. An immediate connection forms between the families and the population officer and a human language that words cannot express is formed. The families hang on to our every expression and every whisper. "What did you say just now? Was it connected to the search? Have you found someone?"

Yuval makes contact with a former federal officer who provides us with the up-to-date numbering of the apartments, according to which we begin to place the names in each apartment. Catalonia Gomez in Apartment 204.  Arnie and Miryam Notkin in Apartment 302. The ruins begin to get names and faces

The race against time has begun: How quickly will precise data arrive about the number of persons trapped, their location and the characteristics of their apartments.

At the same time, at the Home Front Command offices in Ramle, Yusef Salam, head of the Information Department, and with him the information specialist and analysts of the data collection teams, together with Michael the architect, begin to analyze the mountains of information available on social media and to cross-check them with other lists. The race against time has begun: How quickly will precise data arrive about the number of persons trapped, their location and the characteristics of their apartments.

The population officers manage to obtain a detailed list of all the residents of the condominium from the concierge. They cross-reference this with the reports received from the families. At the same time, a local volunteer contacts Amazon to check who from the building had recently ordered purchases.

A well-oiled intelligence machine

Details about the residents begin to accumulate and a story starts to be constructed. In one apartment there were two men and a boy. We verify that the two men were a couple and that there is no missing woman. In Ilan and Deborah's apartment on the 8th floor, a call was made a week ago to fix the air conditioning in the bedroom. As it is impossible to survive in Miami at this time of year without air conditioning we focus our search on the apartment's second bedroom.

Within hours, the family center becomes a well-oiled intelligence machine. Every single relative strain their memory consults with other family members, checks photos and other materials on social media, uploads files to a program that we have developed. Most of all, they show great involvement in the investigation moving from passive to active, from emotion to rationale. "Sir, you don't remember now? No problem, go home, look through all the material you have and come back with more details."

Col. Golan Vach working at the disaster site on Miami (Courtesy)

Relatives of the family in Apartment 804 tell Yuval they are sure their son went down to the garage before the building collapsed and that right now, he is trapped in his white Cherokee jeep. Yuval forwards the message to me. We go down to the flooded garage and find the car but the son is not there.

Yuval tells the father what we found. To his surprise, even though he has seemingly smashed the father's illusion that his son has survived, the father hugs him in thanks, and cries emotionally

Even though he has seemingly smashed the father's illusion that his son has survived, the father hugs him in thanks, and cries emotionally

Once the rumor has spread that the Israelis check every detail and every report, we begin to receive individual requests from families to check specific apartments. The greatest fear is that their loved ones are trapped inside, deep in the darkness, crying out for help, and nobody can hear them. We make sure to respond to every request, if possible, and to describe what we have done. "We were in Apartment 304; Nobody was shouting from there."

In order to reach a deep level of familiarity with the site, I decide that we won't work 12-hour shifts, but we'll stay at the site continuously for several days. Despite the fatigue, I remain with the American commanders throughout all the shifts.  Scott and Fernandez on one shift, Chris and Tony on the second shift. Hour after hour, shift after shift, day after day, a relationship of trust and understanding is built up between us

On the second night I feel for myself the energy that our forces have injected into the teams already working on the ground. After three hours in the dark, in the rain, I find myself with the American team, standing in the rain, in a trench full of mud, working to extract two people buried in a meter of concrete. Breaking up the concrete takes a long time.  The team is exhausted and so am I.  My legs are cramped, my gloves are torn, and with every movement I make, my spade scrapes the blister that appeared on my hand two days ago. The air is heavy and moist, my breathing is shallow under my face mask.  I am gripped by a moment of despair. We have been working for eight hours on trying to extract two people trapped inside, and there are another 80 missing people to find and evacuate.

All of a sudden, Avi, who is an officer with Israel's national search-and-rescue unit, appears. He is full of energy, dressed in his olive-green uniform in between all the blue uniforms of the Americans. He gets to work giving orders and getting things moving.  At that moment I kind of understand how the Jewish community felt when we arrived.  Everything starts to move quickly. My breathing is a little easier and I feel that the weight on my shoulders is being shared.

After a few minutes, we are joined by Nissim, one of the most experienced people in the unit, who took part in the rescue operation in Argentina in 1994. We let the exhausted American team take a break and we extract the two dead bodies.

Col. Golan Vach with a Miami rescue official

On the same day, Nachum meticulously searches a specific patch and finds Gonzalo Torre from Apartment 912 dead in his bed.  Later we look for his wife Maria.  Their apartment slid over the other floors, and Maria is located somewhere else. In every place on the site, on different floors and different apartments, we find her visiting card, photos of her, letters she has written, and bank statements. It seems that Maria is everywhere and nowhere.

Within a few days my deputy Elad, becomes the hero of the families. He is cool-headed, sensitive and has a sense of humor. A close and extraordinary relationship is built between him and the head of the local station Ray Jadallah, who is the son of a family from El Bireh.  His job is to be the contact person with the families, to update them on any progress and to serve as the address for complaints. Jadallah feels an enormous sense of relief when we join the effort and all the more so when we start to send daily updates from the site to the family center.

The families want to know where we are digging, if there is any chance of finding survivors alive, what does the site look like, and what methods we are using. Elad takes the difficult information from the site and delivers it in a way that is to-the-point and interesting.

Maor, the consul in Miami, and Guy, the foreign office representative, accompany us every step of the way. They tie up loose ends, arrange meetings, and sharpen messages. On aid missions, this combination between the foreign office and the defense ministry has a very powerful effect.  Home Front Commander General Uri Gordin, Is in daily contact with me. Later during a trip to the United States, he will come to Miami to meet with us.

Preparing a 3D map

From the engineering perspective, we try to understand how exactly the building collapsed and where each room is in the enormous pile of rubble. The intelligence unit begins by building a 3D model that places every floor and every room in its original location and then "demolishes" the building using 3D imagery that we receive from Intelligence Unit 9900

A couple of days into our work my phone starts to vibrate. My screen fills up with photos and imagery of the site. The big pile of rubble at the end is Shaft No. 12. Malki is there, under a mountain of steel.

Living in those apartments are all beautiful people, young and old, families and single people.

The flow of information from the emergency population officers and the engineers breathes life into the place and takes it back a few days to a large and impressive condominium with beautiful vacation rooms overlooking the ocean, pictures on the walls, curtains, and photo albums. Living in those apartments are all beautiful people, young and old, families and single people.

Photos of Ilan Naibryf, an outstanding athlete, who lived with Deborah Berezdivin hang on the walls of Apartment 811 in the room with the air conditioning unit that works.  Catalina Gomez's bedroom with the blue desk should be right here, at the edge of the pile of rubble, about five meters deep.  This process is something magical that stuns me every time, over and again

A member of the Israeli search and rescue team, (L) salutes in front of the rubble that once was Champlain Towers during a prayer ceremony, July 7, 2021 (JAP/Miami Heraldose A Iglesias)

As time passes, we begin to see concentrations of people trapped in a number of apartments, and we understand where we need to focus the effort of the rescue teams. We wanted to go in at the same time from bottom to top, from the garage to the upper floors. We thought that would be the quickest way to get to people trapped inside, but the safety limitations are strict and we are forced to work only from the top.

At the end of the briefing on Tuesday, Tal calls me and gives me the rundown on what she thinks. She says that the original number of missing persons is 93 and not 158 as the police believe. This is a real earthquake in terms of the scope and length of the operation. "You're really something," I tell her, "You managed to rescue 65 people just by sitting in your chair. From here on, the operation goes on with two differing tallies. The official figure – 158, and the operational figure, 93.

Tal says that the original number of missing persons is 93 and not 158 as the police believe. "You're really something," I tell her, "You managed to rescue 65 people just by sitting in your chair."

At the pile, Amnon and Moti mark, in color and with flags, the axes of the building and the locations of the apartments. They add numbers and letters and the area looks like a giant chess board, and each rescuer knows at any given moment exactly where they are.

At the end of the second day, I feel that conditions have ripened to progress to the stage of proof of capabilities. I ask Scott for a rescue team and point to a specific location at the site. "That's apartment 702, Frank Kleiman should be here, in the bedroom."

The head of the American team gives me a doubting look, but brings over the equipment and gets to work. I join him, and about an hour later we find Frank, extract his body and stand exhausted by the rescue point. Meeting with death drains all one's strength.

"How do you know it's him?" asks the commander of the American team. I get into the trench and start looking for findings that will confirm it. The rain that has started to come down isn't helping. A few minutes later, I find a scrap of paper between the mattress and the wall. Written on it is: 'User: Fkleiman 3353010785. It's Frank's Wifi password. The look on the commander's face changes.

Other teams come down to see what's going on. Amnon points to another location, three meters higher up, and says to the teams. "Dig here, there should be a 16-year-old disabled boy who lives with mother." The two teams get energetically to work and a few minutes later they find the wheel of a wheelchair. It takes a few hours to find the bodies of the boy and his mother.

At this point in time, after three days, the Israeli are in demand. Scott stands next to me, strong, tall and taciturn. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says: "Let's get everyone out of here." The next shift will find five missing persons, the one after that six, and after that seven. None of them are alive.

On Wednesday, reinforcements arrive from Israel. Five officers from the regular division get to work with a spark in their eyes. Jino, Tzabari, Ori, Madmoni and Hollander join Nachum, Nissim, Avi and Avi, and get to work with the local teams. I notice that in every shift there is a certain tension that originates in the desire of our rescuers to work a little differently. We want to get inside with a tunnel, the Americans don't like the idea because of safety issues. We look for flexibility in transition from point to point, the Americans prefer clearly defined missions with fixed sectors throughout the shift. Hours of talks through the night lead to the coming shifts being more fruitful. I feel that they are giving us room for our creativity, and we are respectful of their order and organization.

Members of the IDF's Rescue Unit are given a send off by search and rescue personnel in Surfside, July 10, 2021 (AFP/nna Moneymaker)

I develop a relationship with Scott Dean from TF2 and Chris Martindale from TF1. In the long hours throughout the night (with Chris) and the days (with Scott), sometimes in very difficult situations, we talk about life and death, about the heroism of the rescuers. For the American teams, the mission is very tough because they are familiar with the community. Expectations of them are very high and I try to take some of the weight off them.

The families are seeing for the first time the ruins of what was a vacation condo. The blood curdling screams are for their loved ones, buried under the rubble.

On Wednesday, while we are working at the site, we suddenly hear terrible screams. Relatives of the missing persons, accompanied by police, have come to the gardens of an adjacent building that look over the site. The families are seeing for the first time the ruins of what was a vacation condo. The blood curdling screams are for their loved ones, buried under the rubble. "Anastasia, we are here, keep breathing and don't lose hope!" "Dad!!! We're going to get you." Many of them have dropped to their knees and are holding their arms up to the skies in prayer.

After a few days working with the firefighter teams, we notice that one of them looks different. He is wearing civilian clothes and working silently and quickly. It turns out that he is a senior firefighter from Florida, looking for his daughter and other members of the Cattarossi family who were buried under the rubble of Apartment 501. His colleagues are desperately trying to help him find her.  Our intelligence shows that the apartment is in a different location to where they are digging and we move the works there.

A day later, the firefighter's team find his daughter and her mother – his ex-wife. The final stage of the rescue is a moving and emotional moment. We leave the trench and let the firefighters work alone. His friends, all experienced, veteran firefighters, go in to extract the girl and her mother from the mesh of steel and concrete. Four firefighters from the rescue team spread a blue curtain over the workstation as a canopy to keep the bodies out of sight of the crowds. A firefighter's shirt covers the girl and I make out the American flag on the sleeve that covers her mouth. The firefighters, some of them from other parts of town, line up in two long columns, waiting for the final extraction which takes longer than expected. For a whole long hour, some 500 firefighters and Home Front Command soldiers stand in two silent columns, holding their helmets in their hands.

At these moments, I feel the greatness of America in the respect they give to the dead, and we are their brothers and partners in these momentous moments. When the girl is taken out, one of the American officers shouts out an order from the end of the column, and everyone stands at attention and salutes.

For a whole long hour, some 500 firefighters and Home Front Command soldiers stand in two silent columns, holding their helmets in their hands.

When the stretcher passes by, everyone cries and salutes. The girl's father walks ahead of the stretcher, carried by his close friends to the evacuation point, where he hugs all the firemen. When he gets to Avi Gabai, one of our rescuers, he embraces him firmly and says, "We found her thanks to you." The firemen who are with the father recall how they dug for days without knowing the girl's precise location – until we came along. When I heard that, I thought to myself there is only one thing worse than finding your daughter dead, and that's not finding her at all.

Amnon takes it on himself to find the rest of the Cattaroussi family, and the following day he exposes the bedrooms and living room and we extract the three remaining members of the family. Later, the mother's sister calls Amnon and asks to give her deep thanks to him for bringing her closure.

Fatigue takes its toll

Despite the many invitations we receive from the wonderful Jewish community in Miami, we decided to bring in our first sabbath in the U.S. with the families themselves. After a shower that doesn't manage to wash off the fatigue, I head down to the lobby of our hotel. Dozens of families are here, most of them Jewish.

That morning I had told CNN in an interview that in view of that fact that the building had collapsed in such a compressed manner, and the time that had passed since the collapse, the chances of finding anyone alive were close to zero. So, without words, these moments are when the families say farewell to any hope of finding their loved ones alive.

Malki's mother, Sarah walks up to me. "What's happening with my daughter? You've found everyone but her."

"She's at the bottom of the pile, it's impossible to get there," I explain to her.

"But you Israelis can do anything, why can't you get to my Malki?"

I try to clear the lump in my throat that is choking me. "There are professional teams working very hard to reach her," I barely manage to say. "We will do all we can, I promise."

We light candles with the families. Each family lights two candles, and adds another one for each relative we are searching for. The tray is full of light. Ori, the population officer from the regular division, moves us all with his singing of the Friday night prayers. When he sings Yedid Nefesh, many of those present shed tears.

By the end of the first week, we have extracted 33 bodies, there are another 63 left to find. Over the weekend, additional search and rescue teams arrive from all over the United States. On Monday we decide to send part of the delegation home and to remain with a professional core of seven people. Our planned day of return is on Thursday, but delays to work, due to preparations for the controlled explosion of the wing still standing, lead the defense minister to extend our stay for another three days, until Sunday.

We've been on our feet for a week, working nonstop, almost without sleep. The complete destruction weighs on us like a layer of concrete, and the constant meetings with death are oppressive.

 

Fatigue begins to take its toll. We have been on our feet for a week, working nonstop, almost without sleep. The heat and humidity make you sweat profusely. The complete destruction weighs on us like a layer of concrete, and the constant meetings with death are oppressive.

Things are no less difficult for the population officers. It is important for them to be in constant contact with the families, but these meetings drain their energy. It's hard to embrace someone in the evening, when shortly before you have found the body of the person they are looking for, yet they still don't know. We decide to cut down on the number of meetings and to brief the families only once a day, instead of twice.

We always make sure to take a shower at the end of each shift, then dinner and a daily debriefing. The Hatzalah organization has provided us with a big airconditioned room next to the site and filled it with equipment, food and cold drinks. The Yedidim organization sends us meals. The room becomes a refuge for us, and the members of Hatzalah and Yedidim become our human support envelope. They treat us fantastically, they take care of our every need and become an island of sanity in this harsh place.

Flowers and messages of love adorn wooden hearts with the names of victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, July 12, 2021 (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

On Thursday, the members of the delegation take a break of a few hours and go shopping. This interval is crucial for returning to sanity.

On Monday July 5, the Americans decide to demolish what is left of the structure. Work is halted and federal engineering units come in to prepare the structure for explosion. It is clear to us that after the demolition that site will be fully opened for work and we decide to use the time to build a detailed plan on how to simultaneously reach all of those still trapped, taking advantage of the large amount of personnel and engineering equipment on site.

Amnon and Moti take the planning on themselves, and I present the plan to the commander of the operation, who decides to adopt it. In the first shift after the demolition, we already start to find many missing persons. The number increases from shift to shift, and on Wednesday we find 20 bodies.

One day, I ask the site commander to put me on the list of speakers for the daily pre-shift briefing. Our people have prepared a table showing exactly where each missing person should be and in what apartment number. Every apartment that we had searched and where we had found someone was colored in black. Since then, before every shift we make sure to note how many people are still trapped in the site. I tell the rescuers: "If on every shift you find the number of people that were found on the previous shift, we will finish within 29 days."

I feel that competition is developing between the American teams to see who will find the largest number of missing persons trapped in the site. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, Indonesia and Florida – each one of the teams push their capabilities to the limits. The table is gradually filling up with black squares. The operation commander Danny Cardeso says to me: "We can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

By Tuesday of the second week of the operations we have located and extracted 58 bodies. There are another 35 to find. Tal shows me a photo of a beautiful gold ring, with the engraving "Dodi Leezri". The ring belongs to Gary Cohen and was a unique item reported by his family. Unique items help us confirm where we are located – if we get lost among the floors and apartments, we may lose count of the missing and their approximate locations.

The following night I work with Mike, the head of the Ohio elite search and rescue team. We are in the area of Apartment 110 trying to find Brad Cohen and his brother Gary who were in the apartment together at the time of the collapse. We don't know exactly which apartment we are standing on because several apartments collapsed into the same area.

After a few hours we find some Talmudic books with the Cohen family name and we realize that we are closing in. I send Yuval to ask the family which room Brad kept the Sifrei Kodesh (Jewish religious books). He talks with one of the boys and tells me that the books were in the hallway. According to our map we are in the hallway leading to the bedroom.

I am moved by the fact that a Jewish person has been found by the Torah he studied and by the charity he gave.

After a few meters, we find a small dedication plaque with the name of Rabbi Davis from Jerusalem engraved on it. I send a photo to Israel and ask Hadas, the National Search and Rescue Unit's population officer, to contact Rabbi Davis and ask if he knows anyone who lived in the building that collapsed. The answer arrives after 20 minutes: The rabbi knows only one person – Brad Cohen. The plaque had been attached to a tea box that the rabbi had given Brad after he made a charitable donation to an institution he runs. I am moved by the fact that a Jewish person has been found by the Torah he studied and by the charity he gave.

In the bedroom we find several bodies and it isn't clear who they are. Then, suddenly, by torchlight, next to one of the bodies, we see an object reflecting light back.  Mike hands over to me a ring with the engraving "Dodi Leezri". We have found Gary.

At the end of the shift, we pack dozens of holy books into boxes that will be handed over to the family.

Studies show that seven to nine days into such intense operations, people start to lose their sense of time. So, every evening, in the daily debriefing, we always make sure to recap exactly what we have done that day, what we did yesterday and what we will do tomorrow. I insist that everyone speaks – that is the only way to build personal resilience. But, nevertheless, I and the rest of my colleagues have tears in their eyes when we sum up that day. For us, every layer that is removed from the site is processed as memories, images and experiences. I am familiar with this emotional overload from previous delegations.

We give each other strength and draw strength from each other. As expected, the greatest difficulty is the smell. It is almost impossible to get used to, and it triggers memories at their deepest level. Personally, I find it easier to deal with the difficult sights when I know who the people were. The photos we find and the stories we are told by the families create a protective imaginary world, and when I am working, I try not to say what is left of a person's body, but beyond that.

On one of the breaks, at the request of the family of Zvi and Itta Ainsworth from Apartment 110, whose bodies we had recovered a few days earlier, I go to pay my condolences at the shiva. I arrive at the neighborhood where the children live – large, beautiful houses, swimming pools and well-kept gardens. I enter their house with Eli from Hatzalah who took me there still wearing his dusty vest and sweaty shirt. I walk through the living room, everyone falls silent as I pass by, and I feel like a military notification officer informing a family of the death of their son. I walk into a side room where their seven children are waiting for me. I sit down opposite them, in silence, choking with emotion.

"Mother loved IDF soldiers so much. If she had known that an Israeli soldier would evacuate her, she would have died a long time ago." Everybody laughs and the tension breaks. 

After a few minutes I start to talk and tell them that we located their parents using the information they gave us and that they had played an important role in enabling us to find them quickly. "They were side by side on the bed," I tell them. "They didn't suffer."

Toward the end, one of the boys asks me, "Did you evacuate them yourself?" I respond affirmatively and he says to me: "Mother loved IDF soldiers so much. If she had known that an Israeli soldier would evacuate her, she would have died a long time ago." Everybody laughs and the tension breaks. They ask me to stay for the naming of a granddaughter born to one of them. They bring out a Torah scroll and read from it. In the final aliya, they name the girl Itta.

An emotional Shabbat prayer

Wednesday. We locate Ilan and Deborah in Apartment 811, as we expected. They lie side by side, embraced, holding their ID cards. Perhaps they felt the tremor.

The following day we reach the bottom floors. So far, we have recovered 70 bodies, there are 23 still to find. The second floor, where Malki lived, is in reach. We are emotionally close to all those trapped in the rubble and we have a sense of mission and a challenge in reaching every one of them. But with Malki it's different. The frequent conversations with her mother and the time that has passed since we began have led to high expectations. Her floor is exposed during the night shift. We find her husband and father, but we can't find her.

The same day we had received a visit from Fred Endrikat, the commander of the 26 elite search and rescue units of the United States (Task Forces 1) together with a team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He asks us to present the technology that we use to find people trapped. I explain that technology is not our main tool and that we found the missing persons thanks to a methodology that combines civil and engineering data. The engineering layer enables us to build an image of the structure and on top of that is a civilian layer based on intelligence and questioning of the families. Then we create an operational plan with priorities based on the tools and teams available. The technological layer enables us to execute the plan quickly and simply. We gain an advantage because while we are on site, dozens of people are working for us in Israel. I see he likes the idea.

The following day he calls me at exactly eight in the morning and tells me that he has been waiting since six to be able to call. He tells me that during the night he spoke with his wife and told her that yesterday evening had been one of the top professional moments of his 30 years in search and rescue. "It's so simple, so smart, how the hell did we miss it?"

Friday of the second week. We are now 13 days into the operation. Before shabbat comes in, we do a debriefing of a long and emotional day. During the debriefing, I receive a text message from my sister with links to a few songs that I like and wishing me shabbat shalom.  At the end of the debriefing, I ask everyone to close their eyes for a few minutes, I place my phone on the middle of the table and play my favorite song Yarda Hashabbat (Sabbath has descended) performed by Daphna Armoni.

The sounds take me back instantly to Friday evenings, everyone in their own home. They transport me to Israel's beautiful north, where I live, to the Plain of Ginosar. Its final words, "for noble Hebrew souls" are just perfect for the special group of people sitting with me. As the song ends, we open our eyes, wet from tears, and smile at each other.

It is our second shabbat evening in Miami and we are joined for prayers by Ilan's parents, who have come straight from his funeral. His mother Ronit rushed home after the funeral to cook a shabbat meal for us, a gesture that moves us deeply. Before prayers we bid farewell to the families. We have one day left and we will not see them as a group again.

The atmosphere in the hall is very moving. Elad gives an uplifting farewell speech after which he calls Chief Jadallah and pins Colonel's ranks on his shoulders. "In the IDF it takes 20 years to reach this rank," he jokes, "the Chief got them in two weeks."

The families applaud Elad and Chief Jadallah for several long minutes. It is a very simple and moving gesture to the two commanders from two sides of the world, who chose to be a human anchor for the families whose lives were shaken in this terrible storm.

At shabbat dinner, Rabbi Lipsker, the rabbi of the local Jewish community, who has accompanied us from day one, blesses us that we may return to Israel after all the missing persons have been found. There are still 18 people missing. Chai (the Hebrew for life and in numerology 18) souls, the rabbi calls them. To myself, I think there is no chance.

The Israeli mission presents the country's flag at the disaster site

Friday night. The engineering tools look to me like monsters. They scrape up the concrete with a terrible noise that sounds like a scream, kicking up a choking cloud of dust. We know that the tools are operated in the most precise fashion possible. Because we are next to them, telling them where to work faster and where to be careful. The bodies of those trapped in the rubble aren't harmed by the steel tools, but there are those of us who as they work recite the burial society prayer: "Forgive us if we have harmed you, everything we have done is in your honor."

Saturday morning. The final day of work. We have set the final debriefing for 17:00. Without even talking, we can see in each other's eyes that we cannot end the mission without Malki. I go up to Scott and say to him, "Bro, you love me, right? Give me an excavator and a team for a few hours. I have to find Malki."

Scott gives me the excavator and the team. Amnon and Moti take the excavator, and together with David, Scott's best team leader, start to carefully expose Apartment 21, where Malki lived. The morning passes, and the mid-day sun starts to burn us.

An hour and then another goes by, the pile of rubble from the apartment gets higher and higher, but we haven't found her. I push off the debriefing to 17:30. Each time the excavator scoops up rubble, we pray that this time it will happen.

We haven't managed to find Malki. All I can think about is what to say to her mother, Sarah. I am choked with emotion.

"Nachum, you have to pray," Amnon shouts at Nachum who is standing next to him. Nachum answers: "And what do you think I'm doing under my mask? I'm reciting Psalms."

But our time is over and we haven't managed to find Malki.

On the way to the delegation's final meeting, all I can think about is what to say to her mother, Sarah. I am choked with emotion. I start to talk, but only a hoarse voice comes out. Even though I said throughout that we have to separate between the general mission, which we carried out very successfully, and between individual stories, I cannot shake the feeling of failure. Soldiers are trained to achieve their missions and we have not managed to do so.

At the end of the debriefing, I say something that is difficult for me to express. "Here, at this moment, the mission is over. We will not return to the site. Everything – where we succeeded and where we didn't – is all packaged in one thin wrap that will grow thicker as time passes. All the stories and all the successes belong to all of us, and we will deal together with all the adversities and difficult sights."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava presents a medal to a member of the IDF Rescue Unit during a ceremony in Surfside, July 10, 2021 (AFP/Anna Moneymaker)

I thank each and every member of the delegation for their unique contribution to the success of the mission. Two weeks ago, we could not have imagined that we would managed to shorten the operation by a month, that we would find 87 out of 93 missing persons, that we would influence the search and rescue doctrine of the great United States, that we would form such a strong bond with both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and that we would team up so well with the best search and rescue units in the world.

Our final group meeting ends with a circle hug, a long-standing tradition of the National Search and Rescue Unit – one that is kept for the start and end of missions.

'We will be part of you'

We choose to mark the end of our 330-hour mission by marching the two kilometers from the site to our hotel. The march begins as a private desire to achieve mental closure for the operations, but it develops into a mass march in memory of the victims. The march starts from the site and from there to the plaza outside a nearby church where we hold a ceremony.

Hundreds of firefighters stand there in our honor in two columns, a gesture that is both moving and embarrassing. The mayor and the county commissioner give us the keys to the town and bid us farewell with warm words. We give them an Israeli flag signed by the members of the delegation, and I ask to say a few words to the families.

"We return home and you will forever be a part of us, and we will be a part of you."

"We came here for you. The picture of your lives has shattered into fragments. Standing here are hundreds of heroic firefighters from all over the United States who picked up fragment after fragment, and your one, complete picture is reflected in their eyes. The State of Israel and the IDF sent us on a mission that was very difficult on both a human and professional level – to bring your loved one's home. We return home and you will forever be a part of us, and we will be a part of you."

We head out on the march, walking out carrying the Israeli flag between the two columns of firefighters who applaud us as we march. Together with the excitement, the feeling that we also failed does not leave me, and I imagine Sarah waiting for us in the hotel lobby. Many people walk with us along the way, and from the balconies, locals cheer us on. Midway, an Israeli woman who lives in Miami comes up to me and says she would like to thank us. "Thank you for giving us back our honor," she says. "After Operation Guardian of the Walls, when the IDF attacked Gaza, there was a lot of antisemitism here. Until you came and public opinion turned on its head."

I told her that it's important to remember that it is the same IDF – the army that sent us here and the army that attacked Gaza.

Sarah is waiting for us in the hotel lobby. "You're leaving without my Malki?" she cries, and my heart cries with her.

A moment before I step into the elevator, Amnon runs up to me shouting excitedly, "They've found Malki!"

I invite Amnon and Moti over to join me even though they are embarrassed. I say to her: "Look at their faces. Look how they have been burned by the sun. We have been looking just for Malki for 30 hours. We left very clearly defined missions for the teams that are still here, and I promise you they will do everything to find her. Unfortunately, we didn't succeed."

A moment before I step into the elevator, Amnon runs up to me shouting excitedly, "They've found Malki!" It seems that she was among those extracted from the floor above. I will never forget how we all hugged each other. It may seem strange, but when we find someone, even though they are dead, we are happy. The commandment to "save lives" has many levels, both for the living and those that are no longer alive.

When the plane taxis along the runway at Miami airport, there are firefighters standing on both sides shooting out huge jets of water. The water washes down the windows, wings and tail of the plane, which bears the Israeli flag.

On the way back to Israel we hear that the night shift has found another five bodies, and now there is only one person missing out of the 93. When we land at Ben Gurion, the news comes from the U.S. – the final body has been found.

This diary originally appeared in Israel HaYom.