Rescue crews responded soon after a building collapsed in Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, heading into the very disaster scene others had fled. It's the sort of dramatic moment most people see only on television or in movies. For Fire Department Lt. Ken Pagurek, helping with life-saving rescues like this are just part of the job.
The partially demolished building fell onto a Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market streets around 11 a.m., killing six people and injuring 13 others.
In perhaps the most miraculous moment during the grueling rescue effort, 61-year-old Myra Plekan was pulled alive from the rubble Wednesday night. She had been buried for more than 13 hours.
Pagurek, an 18-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, said as soon as a rescue worker yelled out "We've got one alive!," the crew swung into action.
"We moved very quickly, and there was more rejoicing after we removed her and completed the task," Pagurek said. "You know, as soon as he said there's somebody there, you're immediately refocusing on, 'Ok, what do we have to do to get this woman out?'"
Pagurek says freeing the trapped woman wasn't easy. "We had to cut metal off her," he said." She had racks that were bent around her. She had beams on top of her. She had plaster and lathe from the roof that had come down on top of her, pinned her. So we had to cut all of this debris away to access her and then make it big enough so that we could get her into a position without causing her additional harm to pull her out of the hole."
Pagurek, who grew up in Rockaway Township, N.J., says he's always wanted to be a firefighter. "My father was a fireman up in North Jersey when I was growing up, so I was always around the fire service. Went into the military, and I guess it always intrgued me."
While he takes on the dangerous job, Pagurek says he can't imagine the challenges facing those he saves — such as the tiny space where Plekan was trapped for half a day.
"That was a one-story building, and the space she was in for 13 hours was probably no greater than two feet, you know, 27 inches," Pagurek said. "It wasn't a very big spot that she was balled up in."
Shortly before Plekan was rescued from the building collapse, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter held his final press conference of the night across the street from the site of the collapse. Rescue crews continued working while he spoke, but as midnight approached and the hours mounted, hope for finding survivors seemed to wane.
Luck and swift action
So how did this woman survive a collapse that killed six people? Pagurek says simply, sometimes people are in the right place at the right time.
"I don't know how she survived it," he said. "Obviously she's a really tough person to be able to hang in there for 13 hours at 61 years of age. I mean, a lot of factors play into that. A couple of beams decided to hold more so than a couple of other beams — you know where she was standing at the moment that the wall came down. She was facing toward 22nd Street. You know, you could speculate all day on what was going through these individuals' heads at the time, and I can't imagine having to be inside of that, myself."
Philadelphia Fire Department Special Operations Chief Craig Murphy says that, in this job, they work against time. "There is a clock, but I mean, if you followed that clock and you based your response or the swiftness of your actions on that clock, then that lady, at the 13th hour, would have gotten to her whenever we did," he said. "That clock goes out the door, because anything could happen. You know, 24 hours later somebody could still be down there in a void space."
While the tragedy took six lives, Murphy says he is happy that emergency personnel were able to help a couple of people. "I think through our actions we helped more, because even though they were deceased, we got people out of there," he said. "Unfortunately the event itself took some lives, but for those two that we pulled out of there [alive], it makes everything that we do worth it."
'The greatest job'
Murphy said he could see an instant change in the faces of his fellow emergency personnel as news spread that miraculously, after 12 hours, a woman was still alive in the rubble.
"That whole place lit up," he said. "Once [our deputy comissioner] got the thumbs up that she was alive, everything changed."
Up until then, Murphy says crews had been working diligently. But after recovering six dead bodies, something about the mood felt different.
"What changed was everybody's like, you know, it was almost like jubilant. Like, through all those efforts, you know, we got to rescue someone that was alive," Murphy said.
Pagurek admits this is a demanding job. "We spend a lot, probably more time with our coworkers in very trying and strenuous situations, than we do with our own families," he said. Still, he calls his job with the Philadelphia Fire Department "the greatest job in the world."
Pagurek said, "I love the opportunity to help people and make a difference in their lives, because they might be having some of the worst days of their lives — and then we're able to, you know, intercede and have a positive outcome. Like the chief was talking about taking out ... the deceased victims. Well we recovered them, and we recovered them with the same dignity that we recover a live victim, and the family has closure now."