Pa. firefighters reflect on Fla. condo collapse search and rescue

"We kept hoping that we would find somebody somewhere, but it didn't work out that way," Pittsburgh Bureau Fire Captain said of Surfside aid mission


Megan Guza
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — For more than 10 days, Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Capt. Joseph Janosko and Lt. Joseph Garrison worked with everything from heavy machinery and shovels to garden trowels, spoons and their bare hands, holding out hope that they might find a survivor amidst the rubble of Champlain Towers.

They arrived six days after the June 24 condo collapse in Surfside, Florida. At six days in, there was still hope — hope that someone had survived in a void or crevice, hope that the death toll would not grow to match the number of missing, hope that there would be at least one survivor story to tell.

First responders, families and community members remember those lost in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse during a memorial event.
First responders, families and community members remember those lost in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse during a memorial event. (Photo/Jose A Iglesias/Miami Herald via AP)

"We kept hoping that we'd find a void space with somebody in it," Janosko said. He pointed to those who survived more than a week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and a man who was pulled from his car alive nearly 90 hours after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco.

"We kept hoping that we would find somebody somewhere," he said again, "but it didn't work out that way."

The way the 12-story building collapsed — called a pancake collapse — left little room for survivors, he said.

"We'd find a floor slab and a ceiling slab, and there might be four inches between the two," Janosko said.

Janosko and Garrison were honored Wednesday for their efforts, awarded the city's Sophie Masloff Employee of the Month award for July by Mayor Bill Peduto.

"It is with special recognition that this month's award goes to two leaders within our fire bureau who have given of themselves to be able to travel to Florida to be able to be a part of a very unique rescue operation," Peduto said.

Fire Chief Darryl Jones commended the men, saying their skills bring honor to the bureau as a whole.

"To have these gentlemen employed, because of their expertise and their skill set, to go down and help our neighbors is very impressive," he said. "I'm proud ... to have people on my team with such a level of expertise that they're sought after all over the country and, in some cases, all over the world."

Despite years on the job and more than a decade each on the Urban Search and Rescue team, though, Janosko and Garrison both said nothing could prepare them for the tragedy they walked into.

"We'd find toys. We'd find kids' stuff, clothes," Janosko said. "And then we started finding victims."

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich likened it to his experience in 1995 when, as a relatively new FBI recruit, he'd worked the scene of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He described a similar scene, finding toys and helping to recover some of the last remaining victims amid the rubble.

"You will always remember what you did in Miami," Hissrich told them.

There are certain things that are already ingrained.

"Everybody we came across was entombed," Janosko said. "They weren't in spaces, they were literally engulfed in material."

They found one family of four, they believe who lived on the ninth floor, in which the father was found with a child still in his arms. Some victims were on balconies, perhaps having run out to see what they'd heard after the first part of the collapse. Others died in bed, he said, having never known what happened.

"With one victim ... one of the guys I was with found a spoon from someone's kitchen," Janosko said. "We were just digging around the person with spoons and garden trowels."

Garrison said they were lucky to work with eight Ohio team members who had assisted at Ground Zero after 9/11.

"They had us mentally prepared," Garrison said.

Neither man had ever had to put their urban search and rescue training to the test — they'd only ever worked on training exercises. Janosko said he started work with the fire bureau just days after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

"I remember watching TV thinking, 'This would be really cool to one day deploy with (an urban search and rescue) team,'" he said. "Now that we've done it, I don't think I want to do it again."

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(c)2021 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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