News | Sept. 8, 2021

DLA Susquehanna firefighters assist in search-and-rescue efforts at Florida condo collapse

By Diana Dawa, DLA Distribution Public Affairs

Defense Logistics Agency Installation Support Susquehanna firefighters drill frequently for anticipated disasters. Captains John Fogg and James O’Brien, DLA Susquehanna firefighters, put their training into real-world action when they deployed to support the search and rescue efforts at the Champlain Towers Collapse in Surfside, Florida, with Pennsylvania Task Force 1.

The task force is one of 28 teams that are part of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System, a federal resource that can quickly be mobilized to deploy to incidents anywhere in the country.

“I’m extremely proud of my team and their commitment to helping the community. Every day, members of the DLA Susquehanna Fire & Emergency Services team honorably and courageously provide the Defense Distribution Center Susquehanna and its local communities with professional emergency response services. Today, I’m especially proud of Captain’s Fogg and O’Brien as they have taken their commitment to serve the community to the next level. Through DLA’s partnership with the City of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Task Force One, these two fire officers are proudly representing DLA’s commitment to support the nation by providing search and rescue operations on a national level mission as part of Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the Champlain Towers Collapse,” said Barry J. Shughart, fire chief, Fire & Emergency Services, DLA Installation Management Susquehanna.

As soon as Fogg and O’Brien were notified by the special operations center in Philadelphia, they had three hours to get to the SOC where they prepared and loaded equipment for the 13-vehicle convoy journey to Florida. When they arrived in Miami, they were directed to a cruise ship in port for renovation that was used for housing the recovery operation teams. Busses would transport team members back and forth to the recovery site.

O’Brien and Fogg deployed with the team for 17 days – 12 of those working directly on the recovery site.

The FEMA team consisted of 80 people, which were separated into two 40 person teams that worked 12 hours shifts – noon to midnight and midnight to noon.

‘But those hours didn’t account for the prep time,” said Fogg, which made for long days.

“We had to be at the site by 11 a.m. for an operations brief, which meant we had to be on the bus an hour and half before. After your 12-hour shift it would take up to an hour to get everyone on the bus and head back to the ship – so it made for about a 16-hour day. You really had enough time to get something to eat, shower and then get back up again.”

Fogg gave his first impression when they got to the site where he’d be working.

“The news didn’t do it justice. The pictures just didn’t do it justice. Seeing the size and scope of everything with your own eyes is just unbelievable.”

O’Brien agreed. “All of it, the sights, the smells, the media, the news, all the pictures in the world, just don’t do it any justice when you see it for yourself. It was very humbling.”

“Even everything we do day-to-day, go to fires, vehicle wrecks, we’ve seen a lot of things in a variety of size, scope and complexity, but nothing, nothing compares to this,” said O’Brien. “There’s essentially two other national incidents – the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, and 9/11 incident, and this is probably the third that is even comparable to those in terms of size and scope.”

“Everybody has done the training and taken the classes, some two and three times,” said Fogg. “While working the site, we’d say to each other, ‘Hey remember those classes we took? This is nothing like that.’ I mean, it was kind of like that, training and classes, but it was a whole different size and scope compared to what we’ve trained on.”
Everything was covered in dust, which made it a challenge to find anything. 

“Everything was concrete color, and it was hard to identify anything unless you were looking specifically for an item,” said Fogg.

But, with the assistance of other agencies, O’Brien said it came down to minute details which made the process of finding items quickly. “It was pretty impressive how the Israeli team broke it down. They interviewed every family member who had relatives living in that building and compiled a spreadsheet of the most detailed information down to the specific color of glasses worn for verification. Theonly way to know which apartment you were searching in was from those descriptive details that were provided by families.”

One of the biggest challenges for most folks when returning home is getting back to normalcy.

“When you were there, working on a continuous grind, you didn’t know what day of the week it was, and then … it’s over,” said Fogg. “And you get in your car and drive home and go back to your regular life. For 17 days I didn’t worry about anything but one task, and then when you adjust back into your everyday life. It takes a little bit until you get your feet underneath you again. Biggest thing is family support – for them to know and understand what you’re doing is for a greater good. That’s the big thing that helps when you come back and readjust, is that your family understands that.”

Peer support counselors were on-site to help people said O’Brien. “They walked around to make sure everyone was doing OK. Grief counselors were on-site as well. When we came back to home station, the Philly Fire Department ensured everyone knew that counselors were available if people needed to talk.”

The scope and scale of the operation was not something Fogg is used to. “We’re used to saving and protecting life in single events, like a car accident or something like that, and to switch gears in this type of operation that affected so many – where there were so many people that were looking for closure – it definitely leaves an impact.”
Fogg said it was impressive witnessing all the various agencies there working together with a common goal. “We all were recovering and identifying people as fast and efficient as possible to bring closure as quickly as we could to the families.”

“We were able to help people by giving closure. We were pretty sure we were not going to find anyone alive, so once you come to terms with that, you can focus on the fact that what we are doing is helping people find closure,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien said he will never forget the community support and the many stories he heard from family members. “The overwhelming support from people in the community was just breathtaking. A lot of us started eating at the site because the community provided meals for us. The stories we heard from people on ground were weird, phenomenal, and heartbreaking all at the same time. There were a lot of different stories that will probably stay with me for a lifetime.”

While the experience was very mentally and physically challenging, O’Brien said he would deploy again.

“Nobody wants bad things to happen, but everyone on the team, that’s what they train for, and they want to be there and involved because they feel it will make a difference when bad things do happen."