Bravery, a 'miracle,' amid ruins on Market Street

Firefighters Charles McCarthy (left) and Lamar Wheeler relax between calls at the Rescue 1 firehouse on Girard Avenue near Fourth Street. Members of C Platoon from their house went to the scene in the afternoon.
Firefighters Charles McCarthy (left) and Lamar Wheeler relax between calls at the Rescue 1 firehouse on Girard Avenue near Fourth Street. Members of C Platoon from their house went to the scene in the afternoon. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 17, 2013

For the first time that night, it was quiet on the pile.

The rescue dog wasn't barking. The excavator digging up debris from the building collapse at the Salvation Army thrift shop was turned off.

Firefighters from the elite Rescue 1 unit, drained from eight hours of pulling bodies from the rubble, were off to the side, awaiting their replacements and drinking water.

Amid the mess and ruin, Capt. John O'Neill, 50, a search-and-rescue specialist from Squad 72, stood by himself. This was his vacation day, but when he volunteered to come in, his bosses asked how soon he could get there. They needed the 24-year veteran, who'd worked a series of disasters, including the 9/11 attack in Manhattan, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the tornado in Moore, Okla., last month.

The street was ablaze with portable lights. O'Neill gazed at the pile. It was 11:35 p.m., Wednesday, June 5.

"Help."

The voice didn't sound quite human, more like that of an old-fashioned doll with a string you pull to hear it say, "Mama."

"Help."

O'Neill dove to his knees and starting digging with his hands where the sound was coming from, through bricks and lath and dirt. In a moment, he saw a woman's head.

"Help."

Miracle, O'Neill said to himself. Then he turned to the men of Rescue 1 and yelled, "We have a live one!"

Among the worst disasters

Fire officials who must catalogue the grim data of their profession say the building collapse onto the Salvation Army thrift shop ranks among the worst catastrophes the city has had in the last 25 years - grouped with the Meridian Bank high-rise fire in 1991, the Pier 34 nightclub collapse in 2000, and the "Ride the Ducks" boat sinking in 2010.

Thirteen people were injured and six died when a four-story brick wall collapsed onto the Salvation Army store. The destruction was so swift two of the victims were found still gripping their cellphones.

More than 125 firefighters responded to the emergency. The first moments called for fast reflexes and daring decisions; the last hours required the patience and methodical focus of a surgeon.

For Firefighter Melissa Colflesh, at the scene in minutes, it was the first time in her short career she was on the front line of a rescue.

For O'Neill and some of his colleagues, it was merely the latest in a long line of such missions - one that would end with an unfathomable discovery 12 hours and 53 minutes after the first fire alarm rang.

'How many people?'

Center City was just waking up when Colflesh parked her minivan in front of Engine 43 for the start of her 12-hour shift.

Colflesh, 31, is married with two sons and two daughters, all younger than 12. Usually, she worked out of a firehouse on Frankford Avenue, not far from her home in Somerton.

But today, Engine 43, on Market Street near 21st, needed her to fill in.

Five years out of the Fire Academy, after trading in a desk job with the Police Department, Colflesh had never been inside this firehouse. She was poking her head in and out of the rooms, getting a feel for the place, when she heard shouts, then the wail of an alarm.

It was 10:42 a.m.

As Colflesh bolted for the firehouse garage, she could see an orange cloud of dust billowing past the open doors.

Whatever just happened was very close by.

Bystanders were already rescuing trapped and injured shoppers and clerks. Colflesh ran toward a knot of construction workers who were peering into the basement.

Joists from the collapsed roof blocked the stairs and the men were too big to fit through the wooden slats.

Solidly built with long brown hair, Colflesh stood a head shorter than the men. She quickly slid between the beams and lowered herself into the dark basement.

At the bottom of the stairs, Linda "Kelly" Bell had landed on her knees and could not stand.

She silently recited Psalm 23:.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

She said it over and over and over.

Bell never missed the Wednesday "half-off" sale at the store. She had been walking down the basement steps, holding a George Foreman rotisserie under her arm, when the thrust of tons of falling bricks pushed her to the floor.

Gagging from thick dust, she rolled on to her side.

"It looked like God had thrown this world to hell," said Bell, 50, a mother of three from South Philadelphia.

A construction worker who had rushed to the scene and made his way into the basement was already tending to her when Colflesh arrived.

Colflesh blinked to adjust to the faint light in the windowless room, and was amazed to see everything intact. A floor above, the store looked like it had been blown up with dynamite. Below, the racks of clothing still stood along the wall and down the center aisle.

Colflesh saw a head pop up between the racks. Then another. Then another.

Oh, my God, she thought. How many people are down here?

No one panicked. No one screamed. No one moved.

"Look around," Capt. Joseph Montague, the commander at the scene, shouted into the hole. "Do you hear or see anybody else?"

She counted three older men, plus Bell and the construction worker.

When Bell got back on her feet, she reached for her rotisserie.

"Hon, they're not going to let you take that with you," Colflesh said.

Bell struggled to climb over chunks of debris blocking the stairs. She was afraid of getting cut by nails poking from pieces of wood.

"Don't worry," the firefighters standing above shouted to her. "We need to get you out."

As she neared the top, they pulled her by her arms and guided her to a triage area.

In the basement, Colflesh moved quickly. She knew what was above her. When the building next door collapsed onto the thrift shop, it drove the roof of the one-story shop flat onto its main floor, creating what the firefighters call a pancake.

Anyone in the basement was beneath fallen bricks and a roof, the combined weight of which could have been too much for the floor to support.

With a flashlight attached to her coat, Colflesh scanned the room for others.

Seeing none, she climbed out. She'd been down there five minutes.

By now the pile above ground was crawling with firefighters and police officers. Rescue workers formed a bucket brigade to remove bricks and wood by hand as fast as they could. Colflesh went to the back of the line.

"You took a risk," Montague told her later. "The ceiling could've come down on you."

"I'm so sorry," Colflesh said.

"No," the captain said, "you showed a lot of guts."

Unanswered cellphone calls

Around 3 p.m., Capt. George Bucher and others from Rescue 1, C Platoon, carried their gear into two police cars that had been sent to escort them from their firehouse on Girard Avenue, near Fourth Street, to the scene of the collapse.

Wedged in with his men, Bucher, a gray-haired 62-year-old veteran of four decades of firefighting, felt his mind moving at 1,000 m.p.h. as the police car did 25 in thick traffic.

You're hoping you can do something with a positive outcome, he thought. But with a lot of these incidents, it's never good.

Up until this point, firefighters at the scene had taken 12 people to the hospital and one body to the morgue.

The dust of the collapse had already cleared by the time C Platoon got to what was left of the thrift store. A three-story section of brick wall from the building next door still loomed over the pile.

The platoon set up a laser to shoot a straight line along the edge of the wall. They needed to know whether the wall was moving. In fact, the wall listed one and a half inches while the men were on the site.

As the rescue team worked, they understood that though they could be buried by the standing wall above, they could also fall into the basement if the pile gave way.

Capt. O'Neill, a separated father of three from Roxborough with a runner's build, had been on the scene since 2:30 p.m. He coordinated with Special Operations Chief Craig Murphy, who oversees all three of the city's three technical rescue companies.

Trim and commanding, Murphy, 51, was a veteran of the World Trade Center collapses and Katrina - like O'Neill. He'd been on the pile since 10:45 a.m.

O'Neill and Murphy divided the site into 10-foot grids and had the men check each area. An excavator was being used to gently remove debris.

As the search progressed, some of Bucher's men went into the basement with Phoenix, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever-mix search dog.

Phoenix was acting strangely. Trained to find live, not dead victims, the dog seemed to be getting hits in the basement, but anyone who'd been there was already out.

At one point, the dog began looking up at the ceiling. Its handlers couldn't tell whether the dog sensed an undiscovered corpse on the floor above. Or was someone alive?

The firefighters continued their work on the pile, using power saws and other tools to cut through light fixtures, wire mesh, metal, and wood. They snaked telescoping search cameras through any opening they could find.

As though out of nowhere, a team from the FBI showed up, using sonar-like techniques to find victims' cellphones.

Meanwhile, police officers began to phone the numbers of people relatives thought might be at the shop.

O'Neill and the others would watch the officers dial but never hear a ring, a frustrating silence that got into their heads.

Throughout, the men searched for voids - small openings in the debris field in which a victim could survive. But they knew a pancake situation usually means few voids.

Making things tougher was the ubiquity of the clothing that had been sold in the shop, confusing rescuers accustomed to searching for clothing as a clue to find victims.

Soon enough, with the help of the grid search, FBI, police, and Phoenix, the men began finding bodies.

They discovered a man, then a woman. At one point, C Platoon member Lamar Wheeler, 44, of Northern Liberties, looked down and made a gruesome discovery.

"Somebody's here," he yelled out, staring into the face of a dead woman.

"Where?" one of his bosses asked.

"Right here," he said, pointing toward his feet.

The damage to the bodies was profound. People were not easily recognizable.

O'Neill was noticing that several of the victims exhibited rigor mortis, and some showed blood pooling in certain parts of their bodies. That told him they may have been dead for a while - victims of a quick death.

A precious void

Day became night. C Platoon had found five bodies.

The family of Myra Plekan had notified authorities she might have been in the shop. But she was still missing.

Around 11 p.m., Murphy called out, "All right, you guys, you did enough." Another squad was on the way, and C Platoon walked off to hydrate.

Silence fell, and O'Neill, contemplative and anxious, walked toward the center of the pile.

Then Myra Plekan said, "Help."

"Maria!" O'Neill yelled, getting her name wrong.

"It's Myra," an indignant voice called back. "M-y-r-a. Myra."

Unbelievable, thought Murphy. The men had been walking on the pile right above her.

Debris had driven Plekan face-down, her knees up to her chest, her arms splayed forward in a V shape - for nearly 13 hours.

Firefighters hypothesized the metal clothing rack that fell across her back, trapping her, may also have saved her life. It created a precious void for Plekan's head, keeping building debris from crushing it.

Plekan, 61, had survived all that time in a space that was nearly two feet high, three to four feet long, and a hair under 16 inches wide.

She must have had tremendous faith to live, thought Peter Savarese, 37, one of the members of C Platoon. Trained as a medic, he knew she still wasn't safe.

The so-called crush syndrome could kill her. Toxins build up when a person is trapped and immobile for so long.

When O'Neill was face to face with Plekan, she tried to get up, although she was still trapped.

"Just wait," he pleaded, his heart pounding, his body flooded with adrenaline.

Angry and incoherent, Plekan was yelling at O'Neill. If she's screaming, it means she's breathing, a relieved O'Neill thought.

Working on their knees, firefighters dug Plekan out by hand within seven minutes.

They placed her on a board in a protective basket that was passed, hand to hand, among 20 firefighters to a waiting medic unit. She was hooked up to IV medicines and rushed off to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where a team of 50 doctors and professionals worked to save her.

Plekan is expected to be discharged soon. Without naming her, Larry Jameson, dean of Penn's medical school, told trustees at a board meeting Friday the last survivor of the Salvation Army catastrophe was headed for a rehab center.

"Her family came in to see her," Jameson said. "They were from out of the country."

Not yet ready to talk

In the days since the disaster, O'Neill has tried to reach out to Plekan's family, but no one is ready to speak with him.

That's OK with O'Neill, though he'd like to talk to Plekan one more time.

He wants to apologize for getting her name wrong during her rescue at 25 minutes to midnight, back at the pile.


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.

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