Missouri Task Force 1 continues looking for survivors in Fort Myers Beach

Reporter: Taylor Petras Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:
Missouri Task Force 1 amid the wreckage of Fort Myers Beach. Credit: Boone County Fire Protection District

More than a week after Hurricane Ian washed away swaths of Southwest Florida, search and rescue teams from all over the U.S. are still combing through the ruins in places like Fort Myers Beach to find anyone who may have been left behind.

“You know, the debris is phenomenal,” said Randy Sanders of Missouri Task Force 1. “We have cars overturned everywhere on the island, we have houses that are destroyed, we have roofs that are down. We have boats that are in structures, and getting in and out of there and making sure our teams stay safe, along with our K-9 people and our dogs, uh, it’s very difficult. It’s a slow process, and this is a big island, and they need a lot of help.”

“Structures like this, beach ones that are on stilts, are a little bit different, because if you look at this one, the first floor is completely gone,” said Kelly Grassmuck about one building Missouri Task Force 1 had searched in Fort Myers Beach. “There’s not much to search. But if there is, we’ll make entry from the ladder or [the stairs] if the staircase is still intact, and we’ve pretty much been methodically making our way through the first floor, the second flood, third floor, and then even checking attics. Attics are a big deal, so we’ve been poking our head in there when we get a chance.”

“This structure that’s collapsed, it was a whole other building that’s basically in the backyard of this other building,” said Cathy Schiltz, surveying another scene of wreckage.

Schiltz and Grassmuck explained the usefulness of the K-9 units working with Missouri Task Force 1.

“Because of the roof collapse, what these dogs are trained for is finding things under rubble,” Schiltz said. “Things lying out he might not bark at, but he’s going to look for the hidden one.”

“We’ve been doing this three, four, five days now, and our fear is that we’re going to miss somebody, and we don’t want to do that, so by having the dogs run through there, they can pick up those scents way better than we can, and they can find things we can’t see,” Grassmuck said.

Missouri Task Force 1 has spent a lot of time searching high rises, going up and down many flights of stairs. On Thursday, the Riviera Club was operating as their home base. They filled it with mementos they collected while searching, objects that survived the storm and make it feel a little more like home.

“It’s hard on our families at home,” Sanders said. “A lot of people have small children, still, and when we leave two, three weeks at a time, it’s difficult. So, we make sure they call home and everything is OK at home. But, if there’s something going on and they need help, Missouri wants to be the first to volunteer.”

“We’ve come down here before, and it’s heartbreaking,” Grassmuck said. “It’s part of what gives Fort Myers its charm is kind of the old school feel of it and these older beach homes and things like that, and it’s heartbreaking to see it and to know that it’s gonna be [in disrepair] a long time.”

“We talked with people that are left, and there was a lady that lost her husband, it was very sad,” Schiltz said. “Just to see… that’s the worst, I mean, to lose a family member, but just your house in total chaos… I don’t think they’ll know where to start.”

That woman who lost her husband, JoAnn Knobloch, described what it was like being in Fort Myers Beach when Hurricane Ian roared through.

“The banging on the doors was unbelievable, I mean as the waves were hitting them,” Knobloch said. “So, the doors, the big doors, blew out. First one, then the other; they were blowing out in pieces, and then the regular doors blew out. I was standing over there where that smashed car is, and that door just flew through the air, literally, and I screamed when it went, because I couldn’t believe it.”

She says the experience still doesn’t quite seem real.

“When you’re looking at it, it’s like you’re watching a bad movie,” Knobloch said. “It’s like something you would see maybe in a movie, but you don’t dream that you would ever live this. And, you know, to survive this, I think, is a miracle.”

While Knobloch feels lucky to have survived, and her home fared well, she still has to live with a terrible loss.

“We still lost a lot, and, unfortunately, I lost my husband in this storm, so it’s been pretty devastating to have all this happen… you lose life, and a lot of lives have been lost at the beach,” Knobloch said. “They’re still searching for bodies, and they have a lot of people here helping us, which is good. That’s been the really nice thing is that people have come from all over, helping here.”

“If there’s anything about the people down here, I think they’re very resilient, and they’re very welcoming,” Grassmuck said. “You feel welcome when we come down here. It’s a great community, and I know they’ll rebound. It’s just gonna take some time.”

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