ATLANTIC CITY – Some had seen worse in the basement of one of the Twin Towers days after the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attacks.
Some might even see worse in the future, while doing a job that takes the guts and dedication needed to run into a disaster area when everyone else is running out.
But for many of the firefighters who answered the call for help at the Tropicana garage collapse Thursday, the response is a rescue they will remember for a lifetime.
Ladder Two Capt. Scott Evans was doing a drill near Kentucky and Atlantic avenues with the other men in his company when the call came in. He looked up and saw a plume of dust rising in the distance, similar to what he had seen as a search-and-rescue worker in New York City after the World Trade Center collapsed.
Minutes later, he was at the top level of the collapse with Engine Seven Capt. Mike Dixon. Construction workers guided them to an area where at least five people were trapped beneath rebar and concrete; some, their bodies barely visible, had metal twisted around their torsos and heads.
Using pry bars, metal-cutting saws and chain cutters, Evans and Dixon helped construction workers free the victims. One by one, five were safely sent down to the street some in a cage swinging from a bugecrane.
Then Evans and Dixon jumped farther Into the pit a few levels down, crawling through voids and looking for more victims. They found two men trapped between slabs on the sixth and seventh levels who didn’t make it out alive.
“I saw the one. I grabbed hold of his arm and he didn’t have a pulse,” Evans said.
Then he saw something else: another man’s boot Both victims had been crushed under concrete slabs and, when the rescuers tried to communicate with the men – calling for an “all-quiet” nobody answered.
It was easy to lose track of time, Dixon said Friday, but it was not easy to forget about the slab – the one that hung over the heads of all of the rescuers and workers who risked their lives to help the wounded and retrieve the dead.
You have slabs of concrete hanging and dangling, but you still have to get these guys out of there. You’re doing your job,” he said.
But with the Job can come memories that don’t fade. Dixon’s lasting image of the rescue will be the looks on the faces of the construction workers as the bodies of the deceased were carried from the collapse zone.
“The lasting thing that sticks in my head is the guys. Just their faces.”
Engine Six Capt. Steve Costello, who scrambled into the building with his company of firefighters, ending up between the second and third floors in the center of the area supporting the collapsed floors, will remember teaming with about 30 people to lift a stairway off one victim.
Then came the despair when the man’s pulse stopped. And the heartbreak When Engine Six firefighters couldn’t get another victim to answer them. They saw the man’s yellow baseball cap and his torch. His son, a fellow construction worker, tried to call his trapped father with a cell phone. There was no answer.
“The kid said, ‘Help me look for my dad,'” Engine Six Firefighter Tucker Smith said Friday. “I just lost it I felt It from my gut.”
He wasn’t alone.
It was the type of scene that got to a lot of firefighters and other rescuers no matter where they were, be it sifting through debris with laborers who refused to give up helping and hoping that their brothers would make it out alive, treating the wounded, or reporting in from off-duty, like Battalion Chief Jim Herbert. Herbert parked his car blocks from the scene, got out and started running toward the collapse when he got stuck in traffic.
In the end, it turned into a historic rescue effort, despite the four casualties and 20 injuries. Officials estimated that firefighters rescued 21 trapped workers from the collapse in the first hour alone.
“Some of the injuries were horrific. It was mayhem here from the very beginning,” Deputy Fire Chief John Bereheiko said Friday, calling the collapse the biggest incident he’s managed in 28 years on the job.
One he, like many other firefighters here, will never forget.