‘Not a good place to be’

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Two City of Covington firefighters are among search and rescue crews combing through the rubble of the collapsed condo complex in Florida. In the second photo below, one of those firefighters, engineer Ryan Marzheuser, stands third from right with other Ohio Task Force 1 members. (Photo used courtesy of Ohio Task Force 1)

Covington firefighters searching Florida rubble for victims

 (EDITOR’S NOTE: The descriptions in this piece may be upsetting to some people.)
 
COVINGTON, Ky. – Starting at midnight for over a week now, Covington firefighter Ryan Marzheuser has pulled on protective gear and begun picking through a monstrous pile of concrete chunks and twisted rebar, looking for crushed flesh and broken bodies.
 
At noon each morning, he’s left to get a shower and sleep, doing whatever he can to help his exhausted muscles and overwhelmed thoughts recover in time for the next grueling shift.
 
“This is not a good place to be,” Marzheuser said during a long-distance phone call late this morning. “You’ve seen pictures of 9-11? It’s pretty much the same thing here, only on a smaller scale.”
 
“Here” is Surfside, Fla., where a 12-story oceanfront condominium complex called Champlain Towers South inexplicably collapsed June 24 in the still hours of the night.
 
Shortly thereafter, urban search and rescue teams began arriving from around the country to begin the agonizing process of trying to find people in the massive pile of rubble, whether alive or mostly not.
 
Marzheuser and fellow Covington firefighter Kurt Thomas arrived in Surfside late July 1 as part of an 80-plus-member unit from Ohio Task Force 1, based in Dayton, Ohio. Its 80 or so members split into two units that each work 12-hour shifts, with Marzheuser leading a six-member squad on the night shift and Thomas working the day shift.
 
As of yesterday, the death toll from the unexplained disaster had risen to 64, with 76 people still classified as potentially missing, according to The New York Times.
 
Marzheuser said as of his shift’s end today, he had participated in the finding and removal of up to nine bodies so far.
 
Devastating work
Each discovery has been a brutal experience.
 
“You’re never so naïve as to expect that you’re not going to see (awful) things, but it’s the way you see people that weighs on you,” he said.
 
Given the timing of the disaster, the team has tried to zero in on bedrooms and stairwells, armed with maps of the condo’s floors, a resident list, and a debris pattern whose broken furniture suggests general locations of specific rooms. When crews find documents, they sort through them to identify specific apartments and the number of potential victims.
 
That’s how Marzheuser’s squad found the bed with four bodies in it: a mother and father, and their two children. Another squad found a pregnant mother with her young child, and yet another found a woman with her arms up in the air and a look resembling surprise on her face, “almost as if she knew what was happening,” he said.
 
The fact that the official mission switched from “rescue” to “recovery” hasn’t reduced the urgency and motivation of the work, he said.
 
“We’re going to get each one of them however we can, so the families can have closure,” Marzheuser said. “We’re not leaving anybody behind.”
 
Piece by piece
Still, he said, it’s grueling work.
 
“We’ve been in the same spot (of the debris pile) pretty much from day one,” Marzheuser said.
 
At first they searched for voids and used search dogs and cameras to explore the spaces. Now they’re removing concrete and rebar and searching for any piece of a body sticking out.
 
The “rock,” he said, generally comes in three sizes: So large that cranes or trackhoes have to lift them, a size that can be lifted with two hands and passed person to person like a bucket brigade, and small enough to be lifted with one hand and placed in buckets.
 
Sometimes crews need to use saws and impact hammers to free up the pieces so they can be removed.
 
Protective wear includes steel-toed boots, helmets, glasses, filtered masks, kneepads, gloves, and long sleeves, despite the nighttime 80-degree temperatures and humidity.
 
When workers find a body, they shift into archaeologist-mode, Marzheuser said, donning Tyvek suits and meticulously removing even small debris to expose the whole person, so they can be placed into a bag and carried away.
 
“We do that for 12 hours,” Marzheuser said.
 
Given the scarcity of hotel rooms anywhere near the site, Ohio Task Force 1 members are sleeping more than an hour’s drive away.
 
During the briefing ahead of the start of one shift, he said, one of the day-ops squads reported they had removed 42,000 pounds of rubble in its 12-hour period.
 
“We’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said wearily.
 
***
 
The press information officer for Ohio Task Force 1, Phil Sinewe, said the Ohio-based contingent was scheduled to be in Florida for 16 days, “but nobody knows for sure how that will pan out.”
 
He thanked Covington and others for freeing up firefighters to join the task force, and said they in turn gained search and rescue training that they could bring back to their departments.
 
Proud
Covington Fire Chief Mark Pierce said the City was proud to have firefighters on the ground of such a disaster, helping out.
 
“When people in crisis need assistance, whether it’s here in Covington or over 1,100 miles away, the Covington Fire Department wants to be there,” he said. “I’m proud that we are there, representing and serving and putting our training to work. And I know that if the situation were reversed, other departments would be here in Covington helping us out. That’s the way things work in the First Responder world.”
 
“And, on a personal level, a shout-out to Ryan and Kurt for their work,” Pierce added. “That is a grueling mission in every sense of the word, exhausting and stressful. You can’t un-see what you see in this job, and – when you least expect it – those memories can rear their ugly heads. I’m proud of my firefighters.”