Carmel Fire Dept. Capt. Kurt Weddington has been deployed with Indiana Task Force 1 many times in the past 12 years, but all of his training and experience couldn’t fully prepare him for his most recent mission in Surfside, Fla.
Weddington was one of four Carmel firefighters that left June 30 to assist in search, rescue and recovery efforts at the site of the former Champlain Towers South condo building, a 12-story structure that partially collapsed at 1:25 a.m. June 24.
Previously, the Sheridan resident had responded primarily to hurricanes with the task force, one of 28 FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams in the nation. It’s comprised of 70 members, ranging from firefighters to canine handlers to structural engineers and others, that can deploy to emergencies within six hours of getting the call.
Most people on the scene had little real-world experience responding to collapsed buildings, although the task force members prepare for that possibility.
“The way we train almost seemed too simple, because we couldn’t make as big a scenario as this, and you can’t comprehend how much material you’re going to have to move,” Weddington said. “You’re not going to move it by hand. You’re going to have to bring in the heavy equipment.”
Weddington worked the night shift, which lasted from midnight until noon each day. Perched atop the unstable pile of rubble, the crews worked through the Florida summer heat, which lasted through the night, taking breaks only during inclement weather or when the remaining portion of the building was demolished in the late-night hours of July 4. Weddington walked through the dust still hanging in the air to begin his July 5 shift.
At first, Weddington was hopeful he would locate survivors, but after the first night of work he realized that wasn’t likely.
“I didn’t have a huge expectation of finding anybody alive based on how the building was constructed and how much the building pancaked down on top of itself,” he said.
Weddington said he doesn’t know how many of the nearly 100 victims of the collapse Task Force 1 helped recover but coming across one was the most difficult part of the job.
“(The work) never really bothered me until we would find a body. Then I’d have to process it a little differently because it’s somebody. It’s real now,” he said. “Usually, I would concentrate on what we’re doing and block it out of my mind. That’s what it seemed most everybody would do. Then we would get back, and if we wanted to talk about it there were plenty of people there to talk to.”
Critical incident stress debriefing teams, therapy dogs, chaplains and other resources were available as resources for task force members during the mission, Weddington said.
Task Force 1 returned to Indiana July 16. Its members had at least 72 hours to recover before going back to work, but some grim reminders of the experience lingered longer.
“You can’t comprehend the smell until you’re there,” Weddington said. “Even after I got back, some of my gear still smelled like the pile for awhile.”