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Local firefighters return from emotional two-week dig at collapsed Florida condo building

'It was literally like a war zone'
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Posted at 6:38 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 18:59:01-04

GREEN, Ohio — Firefighters from Tallmadge, New Franklin and Green are relieved to be home and treasuring time with their families after spending 15 emotional days at the site of a collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida.

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4 local firefighters with Ohio Task Force One

"We can't wait to get out the door to help people and do what we do, but we want to get back home and that's a huge part of it-- is us getting back home," said Rich Huggins, a fire medic with the New Franklin Fire Department.

Huggins, along with Captain Josh Compton from the Green Fire Department, Battalion Chief Andy Miller from the Tallmadge Fire Department, and Pete Deevers, who retired from Green Fire as a lieutenant, were part of the Ohio Task Force One team that made the trip to search for victims.

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Ohio Task Force 1 firefighters in the Miami area to assist at the collapsed condo in Surfside.

They returned home Thursday night and spoke with News 5 on Friday at the Green Fire Department. Some of their wives and children also came to the department.

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4 local firefighters with Ohio Task Force One

A large section of Champlain Towers South collapsed without warning after 1 a.m. on June 24. The other part of the building that was standing was demolished July 4.

Approxiamately 100 people have been confirmed dead.

About 80 members of Ohio Task Force One worked 12-hour shifts. Many of them dug by hand in the hot sun as they initially looked for survivors, but it became a recovery effort.

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Ohio Task Force 1 firefighters in the Miami area to assist at the collapsed condo in Surfside.

"Probably the hardest thing is when you're trying to dig to find these people, you're coming across their personal items-- their family photos and their wallets," Compton said.

Members of the task force found 14 bodies, including a father and his three children.

"You could tell he was trying to protect his children, and unfortunately, they all died and all died together within feet of each other," Miller said.

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Ohio Task Force 1 firefighters in the Miami area to assist at the collapsed condo in Surfside.

Deevers worked logistics near the site and helped provide anything the crews on the pile needed, including tools.

"It was like a combat zone in a war movie with all the tools laid out," Deevers said. "It was literally like a war zone and I was just trying to organize it."

With the difficulty of everything the firefighters witnessed, there were counselors available at a hotel staging ares and on a cruise ship where the task force members slept. All of local men said the help was comforting.

"They had critical incident stress from all over the place all the time. They had therapy dogs," Miller said.

The brotherhood, as they call themselves, also leaned on each during emotional moments and went to a nearby beach to decompress when their shifts were completed for the day.

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Ohio Task Force 1 firefighters in the Miami area to assist at the collapsed condo in Surfside.

As hard as the search was, physically and mentally, all of the firefighters felt they needed to be there.

"It's hard, but you've got to get in the mindset of — if it was my family — I would want them out and we are bringing families closure," Huggins said.

Over the years, the group has traveled to other disaster sites, including hurricanes and tornadoes.

They hope to never experience another tragedy like the condo building collapse, but stand ready if their names are called again.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," Miller said.

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Ohio Task Force 1 firefighters in the Miami area to assist at the collapsed condo in Surfside.