Local firefighter with task force reflects on Florida recovery efforts

By Taylor Wooten | [email protected]

Rescue efforts continue at the site of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse, and four Johnson County firefighters are bearing both the emotional and physical weight of the job.

Sean Campbell, battalion chief at the Bargersville Community Fire Department, is working as a tech specialist with Indiana Task Force No. 1. The group deployed a week ago to Surfside, Florida, a Miami suburb.

Campbell and other first responders are working 12-hour shifts searching for and recovering victims in the large pile of rubble left behind from the June 24 building collapse. They work on roughly four hours of sleep and spend their shifts on their hands and knees in the Florida heat and rain, meticulously removing debris.

Rescue crews pulled 10 more bodies from the collapsed condo building Wednesday, and the emotional toll mounted as officials fought back tears and lamented the ordeal of exhausted families still awaiting word on missing loved ones.

The 14th day of the search yielded the highest number of bodies found in a single day and pushed the death toll up to 46.

During a news conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava repeatedly tried not to weep, paused and shook her head as she described the effect of the tragedy on rescue workers and the families of the victims.

A team of 80 first responders from Indiana Task Force No. 1 departed by bus last Wednesday for Surfside. Now, groups of about 200 first responders work on the pile at a time, with about 2,000 total working the operation, said Campbell, who is on his fourth deployment with the task force.

He said the experience is nothing like his previous work doing search and rescue operations for natural disasters.

“For most of us, including myself, this is unprecedented besides 9/11,” Campbell said. “Of course it’s not that, on a grand scale, but it’s virtually the same exact work.”

As each day goes by, the probability of finding survivors decreases, and the weight of the situation weighs heavily on Campbell and the other first responders.

“Most of us, especially when we do find someone, it is extremely hard not to put ourselves in their shoes,” Campbell said. “These were people that were doing everyday things in their homes.”

You can see the emotion on the faces of all of his colleagues, he said.

“The age ranges go all the way from babies to elderly, and we’re uncovering them all. And it’s very hard not to think about your own family or put yourself in the families that are out there waiting,” Campbell said.

Resources are available to the group. Mental health providers are available to speak with the first responders privately.

It is also difficult for members of the task force to be so far away from their families with no set end date. For Campbell, combined with the emotional toll of the deployment, he misses his two-year-old daughter.

“I just got a video when I got back to my room that she misses me, wants me home and stuff,” Campbell said. “But you know, we’re here for a reason. This is what we signed up for and we want to bring closure to family members.”

Groups are working around the clock to bring that closure. With him are four other Johnson County firefighters: Justin Laraway, Rob Stecher and Chad Tatman, all of the Greenwood Fire Department, and Dan McElyea of the Franklin Fire Department.

Their efforts may appear slow moving to outsiders, but the work is hard and meticulous as the search and rescuers remove each rock by hand, Campbell said.

“These rescuers, we’re putting our hearts and souls into this,” he said. “We know it’s not coming fast and people wonder why.”

Workers on Tuesday dug through pulverized concrete where the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside once stood, filling buckets that were passed down a line to be emptied and then returned.

The up-close look at the search, in a video released Tuesday by the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department, came as rain and wind from Tropical Storm Elsa disrupted the effort.

Reporters got their closest in-person look at the site Tuesday, though it was limited to the portion of the building that workers tore down Sunday after the initial collapse left it standing but dangerously unstable. A pile of shattered concrete and twisted steel stood about 30 feet (9 meters) high and spanned roughly half the length of a football field. A pair of backhoes pulled rubble off the pile, which blocked any view of the search effort.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.