On June 24, 2021, at 1:25 a.m., Champlain Tower South, an apartment and condo unit in Surfside, Florida, unexpectedly collapsed. Many residents were at home asleep at that time, resulting in the need for an extensive search and rescue operation. As rescue crews removed rubble to locate the nearly 150 people missing in the wake of the disaster, it was critical that authorities be able to identify remains of the deceased.
As local, state, and federal agencies converged to assist in recovery efforts, the Miami-Dade Police Department contacted the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) Biometric Support Center (BSC) to help provide positive identification of residents during the recovery efforts. OBIM’s biometric examiners worked to manually analyze full and partial fingerprints collected at the scene and attempt to match them to the Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT), a secure biometric repository of more than 270 million unique identities.
From June 28 through July 20, 2021, the BSC received 66 sets of post-mortem fingerprints and searched them against IDENT. The BSC confirmed several automated match results, as well as conducting a few manual comparisons resulting in a total of 19 confirmed matches. OBIM immediately notified the Miami-Dade Police Department, who passed the information to the next of kin.
OBIM Director Shonnie Lyon noted, “In the case of the tragic Surfside building collapse, American citizens, and foreigner encounter records from those traveling with TSA PreCheck®, entering the United States at Ports of Entry with CBP, applying for a visa with the State Department to visit the US, and several other partners were used to make identifications. Information from several mission sets were leveraged to assist local law enforcement in Miami and help provide needed closure for victims’ families.” This demonstrates the importance of an enterprise approach to biometrics at DHS, in the ability to fully utilize biometrics collected, in accordance with law, policy, and privacy, by DHS Components, Offices, Federal partners, and international mission partners.
At least seven identifications were made after an initial search of IDENT showed no match. The dedicated and expert examiners were able to match several names in IDENT and pull biometric images for manual comparison.
“OBIM biometric examiners take their jobs very seriously and are passionate about the task at hand. This was evident in the way the staff worked different angles and kept working the problem until they exhausted every means to make a positive identification for those who perished in the collapse,” said OBIM System Business Operations Branch Chief Scott Shockey. “They are true professionals.”
OBIM’s support to the Miami-Dade Police Department complements FEMA’s recent assistance in ongoing search and rescue efforts. Together, FEMA and OBIM are helping provide closure to families and reunite survivors with their loved ones.