Virginia Task Force 2 members detail Surfside SAR operations
Williamsburg's Robert Phaup described the process to "de-layer" each floor of the collapsed condo during the often 16-hour shifts
The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Task Force 2 has seen its fair share of natural disasters, assisting with search and rescue operations during Hurricane Dorian and others, but this month they faced a new challenge working at the site of the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Florida.
Last week, the Virginia Beach-based urban search and rescue team arrived home after nearly two weeks, assisting with operations at the site of the tower collapse.
The task force is comprised of more than 80 members from 12 different fire departments, including two members of James City Fire Department, one from the Williamsburg Fire Department and three from the York County Fire Department.
Robert "Trey" Phaup, a firefighter from the Williamsburg Fire Department, was one of the members of the task force deployed to Florida.
According to Phaup, the task force was split into two shifts comprised of 35 members: one day and one night team. The task force members worked 12-hour shifts the two weeks they were there. Phaup said the 12-hour shifts were more like 16-hour shifts after accounting for meal and transportation time.
This left only about four hours of sleep for the members each night.
At the site of the tower collapse, Phaup worked as a rescue specialist. He was paired with five other rescue specialists, a hazmat specialist and a medical specialist to conduct a search and rescue operation.
"Very quickly to us it was obvious that this was not a search and rescue mission. This was a recovery mission, which is just as important because the family members need closure," said Phaup.
Their job was to search through the rumble for victims, which was complicated due to the amount of rebar or reinforcing steel, found at the site.
Phaup said they knew that the tower's floor plans were laid out the exact same each level, so they would essentially "de-layer" each floor in their search. They would look for signs of mattresses and other bedroom items, since the bedroom was where most victims were found. The 12-story condo collapsed at roughly 1:35 a.m. June 24.
During their time in Florida, the task force recovered 25 victims and assisted with 35 other recoveries. As of Thursday, 97 victims have been identified.
While in Florida, the team stayed on the Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas, which provided three meals a day, laundry service, fresh showers and more for the members.
The task force has also been provided with support services. The International Association of Firefighters had peer support groups available to the members during their time in Florida. For Phaup, he said he found some relief playing with an emotional support yellow Lab named Oscar.
Other members that were part of the task force include two firefighters from James City County Fire Department, Robert Mintern and Jason Plocharczyk, and three members from the York County Fire Department.
"Just an incredible capability that the nation has and we are lucky enough to have one here in Hampton Roads in Task Force 2," said Larry Snyder, deputy chief for the Williamsburg Fire Department.
Phaup emphasized that the operation was a team effort. Walking away from their work in Florida, Phaup said he has gained operational knowledge, but more importantly, will be holding his loved ones closer.
"Tell your loved ones you love them every chance you get, because you never know," said Phaup.
(c)2021 The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Va.)