‘Huge emotional toll’: Utah firefighters head to Florida to support collapsed building searchers

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OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – A pair of Utah firefighters will travel to Surfside, Florida Friday with a very important assignment: not to assist in the search of the collapsed condo tower, but to help the searchers.

For two weeks, crews have crawled through the pile of dusty debris that used to be the Champlain Towers South, digging and finding bodies, body parts, and personal mementos of the victims. It’s grueling work, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“It definitely does take an emotional toll,” Former Ogden Fire Captain Susan Davis told ABC4 News. “It’s devastating.”

Davis knows what the searchers are going through. She saw her share of death and destruction in a 24-year career before retiring from the Ogden Fire Department two years ago. Now, she’s the secretary and treasurer of the Professional Firefighters of Utah. She and PFFU 1st District Vice President Nate Thompson, a battalion chief with the Logan Fire Department, are preparing to travel to Surfside as peer support counselors.

“It’s just being able to provide an opportunity for them just to offload or maybe decompress from some of the things they’ve been seeing, now over the course of a couple of weeks,” Battalion Chief Thompson said. “When you have victims that are still missing, family members, that’s a tough thing. That just starts to build and build over the course of time so that in and of itself is a huge emotional toll.”

“I want to know if they’re getting enough rest, if they’re eating, if they’re having any nightmares,” Captain Davis said. “Anything specifically that they want to talk about…Normally if people see some tragedy, they’re going to talk about it and try to get through it. Some people don’t get through it very well, but these firefighters and these rescue workers are seeing it every day. So what they see today, now they have to go back tomorrow and the next day and the next day and it’s the accumulative process of every day just trying to find something to give a family a little bit of closure.”

The goal is to give the exhausted and traumatized men and women a sympathetic ear, the kind only another firefighter can provide.

“We know what they do. We’ve done it. We do it and it’s easy for them to talk to us,” Capt. Davis said. “When I would speak to you about something, I would say it in the nicest way where if I speak to a firefighter about it, I’ll probably add the gory stuff that I want out of my head.”

Captain Davis and Battalion Chief Thompson don’t want the rescuers to become secondary victims of the incident, keeping their feeling inside and possibly falling victim to alcohol, drugs or suicide.

“It’s very important to be able to talk to somebody who knows what’s going on,” Capt. Davis said. 

“We’re there to listen and support ’em,” Battalion Chief Thompson added. “Usually just the act of getting there means more than anything to them. That’s always the first thing ‘I can’t believe so many people care.'”
Captain Davis and Battalion Chief Thompson plan to be in Florida for five days.

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