Florida Fire Chief and Her Trusty K-9 Comb Condo Collapse Debris, Sleep Near Rubble, Hoping to Find Survivors

Battalion Chief Nichole Notte and her rescue K-9 Dig.
Battalion Chief Nichole Notte and her rescue K-9, Dig.Broward County Sheriff's Department

Broward County Battalion Chief Nichole Notte and her K-9 partner, Dig, have been at the Surfside condo collapse site since the building came down.

The call came at 2 a.m. from a Miami-Dade County Fire captain. "I need canine handlers and I need help," the woman said.

On the other end of the line was Nichole Notte, a battalion fire chief and veteran search-and-rescue K-9 handler, and she immediately knew something was very wrong. "I could hear the fear in her voice," Notte told Inside Edition Digital.

Notte got up, got her trusty four-legged partner, Dig, and headed toward Miami. "I got there within 45 minutes of the collapse," she said.

The 40-year-old new mother has been there ever since, combing the wreckage in Surfside of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building, which collapsed last week in a stunning disintegration of concrete and glass.

"The building has literally pancaked," said Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett shortly after the collapse.

To Notte, it looked like 9-11. "It was scary," she said.

Her concern was the humanity inside all of that twisted rubble. "I had to gather myself and think about the best way to go about the search," she said of her initial reaction. The teeming scene before her was a cacophony of shouting first-responders and the wailing sirens of arriving fire and paramedic trucks.

Asked if she could hear any calls for help from inside the debris, Notte replied, "I didn't hear anything."

Notte is not allowed to talk about anything to do with human loss as rescuers search for any sign of life in what responders call "The Pile," where 150 people are still unaccounted for, nearly a week after the seaside condo building gave way in the middle of the night.

"You just can't help but think of the families of the people who were trapped," she said. 

She and her colleagues are working 16-hour shifts in the stifling humidity of southern Florida, sleeping in tents at the site and determined to bring out every person buried inside. 

It is one of the nation's largest search-and-rescue operations in recent history.

"It's exhausting," she said. "Physically and mentally exhausting. All of our dogs are exhausted, they're working around the clock, too."

She has had Dig, her K-9 partner, since he was a puppy. Normally, they work for Broward County, but currently they are assisting FEMA. Dig is 11 now and scheduled for retirement this year. This is probably his last big assignment, she said.

Dig is trained to smell for signs of human life. There also are cadaver dogs at the site, but Dig sniffs and then paws at areas where he picks up the scent of a living person.

Dig and Nichole Notte at the collapse site in Surfside, Florida. - Broward County Sheriff's Department

The dogs can get into areas where searchers cannot go. They weigh less than their people partners and are more steady on their feet, Notte explained, so they can wriggle into cramped spaces too unstable for humans.

The animals also serve as good will ambassadors, providing sorely needed respites of petting and licking and playing for the overburdened rescuers.

"They've been great," Notte said. "They're always there for you."

Dig at work in Surfside. - Broward County Sheriff's Department

Comfort is something those on the pile try to provide for each other. Notte has had several "crying moments, several times a day" with her teammates. "Then we put our helmets back on and we go back on the pile."

Still, as she drifts off for a few hours of sleep, "certain sounds stick with you," she said. "All I hear is collapses."

How does she keep her sanity?

"I don't know at this point," she said. "Talking to my teammates."

She has traveled the country in 10 years as a K-9 search and rescue handler. She's been to storm-soaked locales in Louisiana and hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

She has a 3-month-old baby at home, yet there she is, traversing the rocky remnants of a condo building, surrounded by destruction and death.

"These people just want to work," she said of her colleagues, and herself. "They just want to get back on the pile. They just want to help these families and find their loved ones."

Broward County Sheriff's Department

The rescue teams serve for two weeks and then are swapped out with fresh searchers. But the work never stops.

"We'll be here as long as it takes to get everyone out," she said.

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