For two weeks, three of Cherry Hill’s own firefighters dug through the concrete rubble that was the aftermath of the devastating June 24 collapse at Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.
Captain Daniel DiRenzo III, Captain Robert MacDermott and firefighter Jacob Speas are also members of New Jersey Task Force 1, one of 28 FEMA urban search and rescue teams in the United States tasked with recovering bodies at the 13 story structure.
Trained and prepared to respond to emergencies, DiRenzo said it still felt surreal when he laid his eyes on the scene, knowing that there were more than 100 people trapped inside the collapsed building, the third largest collapse with civilian casualties in the country’s history, behind the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“You walk up on it, and it’s pure devastation,” DiRenzo said.
Despite his training, MacDermott said nothing could have prepared him for a disaster of the magnitude in Florida. When he arrived at the scene, the condo building had gone from 13 stories to an approximately 20-foot high pile of concrete. The part of the building that hadn’t collapsed had to be imploded to make the remainder of the site safe for rescuers.
Previous task force training had taught the Cherry Hill firefighters to breach and defeat reinforced concrete to get to trapped people, but no training structure could compare with the sheer size of the Surfside collapse. Each floor and layer of the collapse had to be carefully sifted through before searchers could move on to the next.
Speas said the only way to make it through was to take it section by section and just focus on the area he was working on. He and the others were trained on 6-by-6 foot concrete slabs, so Speas had to stop looking at the site as a 13 story structure and focus on one 6-by-6 foot section at a time.
The sheer scope of the work was overwhelming, but when Speas thought about how much rubble searchers had to go through, he went back to his training and reminded himself he knew how to operate the tools and how the concrete would respond, and focused on one piece at a time, so he didn’t miss anything.
“It’s overwhelming when you first get there, but you have to get your blinders on and go to work in your little section,” Speas explained. “You know your job. You know your mission and you do it.”
The search teams worked 12-hour shifts, with MacDermott and Speas on the midnight- to-noon shift and DiRenzo working noon to midnight. They stayed on a ship at the Miami Cruise Terminal and were transported to the site about 45 minutes away. On average, they slept around five hours at a time.
MacDermott said the work was debilitating, with the average heat index coming in over 100 degrees, with 78 percent humidity. To prevent heat exhaustion, the search teams frequently rotated, with each person combing the site for 45 minutes, then resting for 30 minutes in the rehabilitation area. They wore gloves, steel-toed boots, knee pads, helmets, eye protection and respirators, and FEMA had doctors and medics on site.
DiRenzo said Cherry Hill, Camden County and the state already take aggressive action to prepare rescuers for an emergency, but the knowledge and experience he and his fellow firefighters gained at the collapse scene is something that will stay with them and will help ensure their own personnel are better equipped for a possible emergency.
The three men agreed their support systems were key, given their mission to dig for bodies took such a toll.
“Without that support group, you will never mentally, physically or any other way get through it,” said DiRenzo, who added that getting back to his family afterward felt different from other rescues he had been on.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of our family and the support of our coworkers back home,” MacDermott said.