July 1, 2021 9:32:48 am
Rescue workers navigating the dusty rubble moonscape. News conferences offering little encouragement. Photographs of missing loved ones assembled in a sudden memorial shrine. The anger. The grief. The faint hope ceding to sorrowful acceptance.
The middle-of-the-night collapse of the Champlain Towers South apartment building in South Florida last week was a tragedy apart from any other, with its own distinct circumstances, its own affected community. This was not a terrorist attack in lower Manhattan; this was an apparent structural failure in Surfside, Florida.
Still, for anyone who recalls the fresh days following the World Trade Center catastrophe — 20 years ago this September — the reports and images from Surfside are almost too familiar, no matter that the Champlain building was roughly one-tenth the height of the 110-story twin towers. The two events are bound by the human and technical rhythms of disaster.
“Let me frame it this way: We go through a process,” said Joseph Pfeifer, a retired assistant chief for the New York Fire Department and founding director of its Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. He was the first fire chief on the scene when the towers fell and helped to oversee the massive rescue effort.
For example, he said, in the immediate aftermath of both tragedies, people felt the need to come together, to express their grief and commiseration through the public display of photos and flowers and candles.
“There’s this longing to be connected,” Pfeifer said. “Because we don’t want to be alone. The event is so overwhelming.”
In both cases, families were invited to visit the scene from a safe distance — whether to pay their respects, or to feel close to their loved ones, or to show support for the emergency medical workers who are doing all that they can.
At the same time, there is the need to gently but clearly explain that rescue efforts after a building’s total collapse are moving quicker than they might appear, with care being taken to minimize the danger to rescuers and possible survivors.
Mike Corr, a retired detective and rescue specialist for the New York Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit, also responded to the 9/11 aftermath. He vividly recalls the jagged pieces of steel, the unsettled concrete, the jutting rebar, the fires, the noxious smoke and gases — and the fear that the removal of a beam, say, might send debris cascading into a void occupied by someone still alive.
“Every action has a reaction,” Corr said. “You remove the next layer, and then the next layer, and then the next layer.”
Pfeifer agreed. “You don’t want anyone else to die on the site,” he said.
As with the September 11th aftermath, Pfeifer said, there will be investigations — a form of reflecting and asking what happened and why. “Then it’s envisioning the future,” he said. “How do we do this better? And that becomes a level of hope.”
First, though, comes the difficult moment when hope meets reality, when the incident commanders finally decide to change the mission plan from rescue to recovery.
The chances for surviving the force of a collapsing stack of concrete floors are nearly nil — but miracles happen. Voids might — might — be created.
In the case of the World Trade Center collapse, John McLoughlin, a police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was rescued after being trapped for 22 hours under the rubble. He was the disaster’s last survivor — though some held out hope long after the trills of cellphones buried in the debris fell silent.
“It’s not to say it’s hopeless,” Corr said. “There are cases where people have survived, because you do have voids …”
The “but” was unspoken, yet still conveyed in the tone of Corr’s voice. Eighteen people so far are confirmed dead in Surfside, with 145 others unaccounted for.
Six days after the collapse, the comprehensive search and rescue effort continues. But Pfeifer — whose book, “Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11,” is to be published in September — said family members were entering the stage where hope diminishes with every clock tick, and the stirrings of acceptance take hold.
Soon, many will be focused on the recovery and identification of their loved ones’ remains — a process that, in the 20-year wake of 9/11 in New York, has not stopped. According to the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner, the remains of 1,108 of that day’s 2,753 victims — about 40% — are still unidentified.
“They will be hoping to recover a part of a loved one and — at the same time — dreading it, because of the pain,” said Pfeifer, who has watched the tragedy of Surfside unfold from the twinned perspective of disaster preparedness expert and family member.
His younger brother, a firefighter named Kevin Pfeifer, died in the north tower shortly after the siblings — one a chief, the other a lieutenant — exchanged a word and a final glance.
“I told him to go up,” said Pfeifer, whose own process continues.