'A shared experience that we don't take home': Ohio FFs reflect on Fla. condo collapse mission
Ohio Task Force 1 rescue team members described the Surfside condo collapse scene as being "like a combat zone in a war movie" as they worked to find victims
Akron Beacon Journal
AKRON, Ohio — Andy Miller will not forget the first morning of his 15-day deployment to Surfside, Florida.
The Tallmadge Fire Department battalion chief was in the Sunshine State on a rescue mission searching for victims of the June 24 Champlain Towers South condominium collapse.
He'd seen the site at night, with the floodlights and the yellow caution tape marking the vast pile of debris concealing victims buried beneath.
But in the light of day, the expanse of the destruction was starkly, oppressively, evident.
"I remember looking [up] as the sun came up the next morning, and seeing the building looming," Miller said.
Across the pile, a headboard stuck out from a wall that had not collapsed.
Miller and three Summit County colleagues gathered Friday at Fire Station No. 1 in Green just hours after returning from their Florida mission as part of Ohio Task Force 1, a disaster rescue team based in Dayton.
Miller joined Green Fire Department Capt. Josh Compton, retired Green Lt. Pete Deevers and New Franklin Fire Department firemedic Rich Huggins to discuss the mission, which started as a rescue operation and became a recovery effort.
"I think we all knew eventually we were going to find somebody," Miller said. "You are there at this person's last moment of life, there in the position they died."
In one case he described, a father remained in the same position he had perished while trying to protect his children.
The men described a horrific scene of devastation, where 80 members of OTF-1 worked 12-hour shifts to uncover the fathers and mothers and children killed in the collapse. Miller worked the pile at night, digging with teams from around the United States through the 13 stories of debris.
"We were literally digging by hand around these victims, to get them out in the most dignified way," he said.
Huggins said the victims uncovered by OTF-1 and rescue workers around the nation were all being mourned by someone. He used that knowledge as motivation.
"You have to get in the mindset of: If that was my family," he said.
Sometimes, those loved ones were nearby. During an encounter at a memorial near the pile, a desperate family asked for help, Compton said.
"Please find my family member," they pleaded.
Made for this mission
Phil Sinewe, public information officer for OTF-1, said the team has responded frequently in recent years to natural disasters like hurricanes, which spread their destruction across wide swaths of land. The devastation in Surfside was different because it was confined, all of it in eye range.
OTF-1 and other regional search-and-rescue teams were conceived in the aftermath of terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing and Twin Towers collapse, Sinewe said.
"The interesting thing is while we do a lot of hurricane work, this building collapse is the original purpose and intent," he said in a phone interview. "The value of the urban search-and-rescue teams became widely recognized as a really positive [force] during the World Trade Center."
OTF-1 has about 200 members — including fire and law enforcement personnel, emergency medical and hospital professionals and structural engineers — who regularly train for disaster response, he said.
"Much of the training they do is designed for this kind of work," he said.
Expertise ranges from canine units to search practices to cutting and boring through concrete and other debris.
Some members, including Deevers, focus on logistics.
The retired Green firefighter helped searchers with food and equipment needs, fielding routine and sometimes unusual requests.
The accumulation of material and food available to the teams was impressive, he said.
"I've never seen 10 jackhammers laying on a tarp coming and going at the same time," he said. "... It was amazing just the sheer quantity of resources available."
The site also was different than what he'd experienced before.
"I remember getting there and thinking it was like a combat zone in a war movie," he said.
Viewing from afar
Huggins said that he and other members of the team had been keeping track of the collapse, wondering when they might be deployed.
"We had been watching it for a week on the TV," he said. They asked themselves, "Why aren't we there?" he said.
The deployment came June 30, and the four men's spouses and families prepared for their absence as the firefighters prepared to rescue families 1,200 miles away.
Joey Compton said her husband has been involved with search-and-rescue operations since they were dating.
"We've all been wives for a long time, so we know what to do to help them," she said.
While OTF-1 members are on a mission, the wives — or husbands — and children pick up the slack at home. It helps, she said, when the families know each other.
On the day Compton left, he was driven to Lodi by a young relative and accompanied by his daughter, Reese, 13. Along the way, they picked up Huggins.
Reese said she's proud of her dad and the work he does for OTF-1, but she and brother Parker, 10, miss him when he's gone.
"It's hard not having your dad home for a long period of time," she said. "[But] I'm very proud of him because he helps so many people."
Reese said she shares that desire to help people with her father, but isn't considering a similar career.
Camaraderie from shared experience
The four firefighters all say that training together and sharing the roller-coaster ride of a deployment forges a special bond among search-and-rescue team members.
"It's a brotherhood, there's no doubt about it," Deevers said.
The retired Green firefighter said working together under sometimes extreme conditions creates some memories they don't want to affect their families.
"Bad stuff happens..." he said. "We have a shared experience that we don't take home."
Although counseling is provided on-site, they mostly depend on each other to process those experiences, the men said.
"The transition is the drive home," Miller said.
"Being with the team ... is counseling for us," Compton said.
While on a mission, the men said they're thinking of home, and so are their colleagues from around the country.
During a break in Surfside, Compton said he got into a conversation with a member of the New York City Fire Department. Their discussion veered far from the devastation in Surfside.
"I talked with an FDNY [member] about family," he said.
The experience of a mission is hard on the team, but it can be trying for their families back home.
Miller, who has gone on many missions, said this one was especially difficult for his spouse. During his absence, though, she prepared a surprise for his return.
On Thursday night, Miller's wife, Jenna Bates, and neighbors were waiting for him to arrive. When he did, they cheered his return, one carrying a sign reading " Welcome Home to our Neighborhood Hero."
Others held balloons and welcome-home signs.
On Friday, the men basked in the presence of their families at Fire Station No. 1 as they told their stories of the Surfside mission. As the session drew to a close, Huggins' young children sat on his lap or clustered around him, restless and ready to go home; Reese and Parker Compton stood guard by their dad.
The men said on the ride home, they realized they had lost track of time.
"We had no idea what day of the week it was," Miller said.
But they all agreed they were heading in the right direction, Huggins said, putting into words what they all felt.
"We cannot wait to get back home."