Reserve chaplain supports Surfside condo collapse victims, first responders

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Bradley Tipton
  • 927th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

First responders from Miami-Dade County, Fla., faced a nightmare scenario on June 24, 2021 when the Surfside Champlain Towers South building collapsed suddenly, trapping many residents and leading to a desperate search for survivors and casualties.

Search-and-rescue efforts spanned across multiple agencies and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Eli Estrin, a Rabbi and chaplain assigned to MacDill Air Force Base's Readiness Integration Organization Detachment 6, put his own skills as a military chaplain to work aiding rescuers and victims.

“At Basic Chaplaincy Course, we had classes on mass casualty events,” explained Estrin. “You’d never think that you would be a part of one, but unfortunately they do happen. They taught us how to make ourselves useful and not get in the way of first responders by understanding the systems typically at work.”

Air Force chaplains play an integral part in the welfare of military members. Working with teams of enlisted religious affairs Airmen, they provide religious support and accommodation, promoting readiness and well-being of the armed forces.

As a Military Personnel Liaison at the Aleph Institute, a non-profit Jewish organization dedicated to serving the spiritual needs of those in institutional environments, Estrin’s desire to serve military members led him to join the Air Force Chaplain Corps.

“When working with Jewish students on campus, I met a handful of Jews who are leaving the service or going into it, and I felt they had a need that I could assist them with,” said Estrin.

Estrin works in the 6th Air Refueling Wing chaplain office as an individual mobilized augmentee, supporting MacDill 's 33 tenant organizations and approximately 29,000 military and civilian personnel.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Surfside, Estrin reached out to the police and fire chaplains working on-scene and was encouraged to appear in uniform because many first responders have military connections and backgrounds.

“The building is not far from my work office so it felt personal,” said Estrin. “While I didn’t know anyone personally, I knew there wasn’t more than one degree of separation with many of the victims and survivors. In fact, as the weeks have gone by, I have learned of many more connections than I ever would have imagined.”