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For Philly firefighters, Florence floodwaters test their skills, patience, and families back home

PA-Task Force 1, a group of elite rescue workers, paramedics, and engineers from Philadelphia and from across the state, deployed to South Carolina to rescue residents during Hurricane Florence.

Pennsylvania Task Force One Urban Search & Rescue's John Getty and Mike Fanning help Ray and Shirley after getting stuck on Red Road on the Hayes Swamp in Little Rock S.C.
Pennsylvania Task Force One Urban Search & Rescue's John Getty and Mike Fanning help Ray and Shirley after getting stuck on Red Road on the Hayes Swamp in Little Rock S.C.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

DILLON, S.C. – On a flooded rural roadway just outside this small town, four Philadelphia firefighters wearing bulky rubber safety suits trudged toward a vehicle with a white roof that peeked above the brown water. It had been five days since Hurricane Florence made landfall, but nearby rivers swollen with its rainwater were still rising.

As the firefighters waded in, the water climbed to their knees, then to their waists, finally up to their necks.

By the time they reached it, a Chevy pickup, they were treading water. Then they got their first glimpse inside – an elderly man was floating face-up.

He was one of 50 people to die from the storm.

They smashed the cab's windows and cleared the broken glass. Boxes of pasta, loaves of soggy bread, and packages of adult diapers lined the seat. It seemed the man had been trying to flee Florence when rushing water pushed his car off the road.

Only later did they learn his identity: Charles Andrew Carter, 81, of Bishopville, S.C.

"Finding someone deceased is really frustrating because I think, what if we had gotten to him sooner?" said firefighter Nkosi Wood, 44. "I pray for any soul that has passed. But drowning? That has got to be one of the worst ways to go."

Wood is a member of PA-Task Force 1, a group of elite rescue workers, paramedics, and engineers from across the state who are specially trained for disaster response and available to deploy at a moment's notice. They sifted through the rubble at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11 and they boated through the flooded streets of Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

Now they had traveled hundreds of miles in hopes of saving lives in South Carolina only to recover a victim instead.

Wood knows the panic that sets in when you can't take a breath. Last year, while fighting a house fire, he nearly died when a stairwell collapsed, trapping him in a crouch that put so much pressure on his chest that he couldn't inhale.

"I couldn't take in enough air to yell for help. I couldn't use my hands to push Mayday on my radio," Wood would later say. "It was probably only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever."

Still treading water, Wood and the other rescue swimmers guided Carter's body through the truck window and back to the water's edge. Then they placed his remains in a black body bag and turned him over to the coroner.

As the firefighters drove back to their base, the power of the flooding that had taken the man's life could be felt with each bump in the road. Water had so mangled the once-smooth asphalt that it was almost impassable.

Begging for a boat

Several days earlier, the leader of the task force, Ken Pagurek was behind the wheel of his Ford Expedition, leading a convoy of vehicles into Dillon, a rural town with about 7,000 residents. The rain pounded his roof so hard he could hardly hear his radio.

"I can't see," he said as his windshield wipers flew back and forth.

Pagurek, 49, a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department, has been a firefighter for more than 20 years and a member of the task force for the last 12.

Minutes earlier, he and other rescuers had been setting up cots at a Baptist church in another town about an hour from Dillon when a member of the National Guard showed Pagurek a Facebook message from the mayor. He was begging for anyone with a boat to come help rescue residents of his town from their flooded homes.

Pagurek told the team to pack up. They were moving "into theater."

After they arrived, Pagurek huddled with Dillon Fire Chief Keith Bailey.

"We're glad y'all are here," Bailey said, his eyes bleary from coordinating rescues all day. "Most of the calls are coming from people who're stranded in their cars. They didn't listen to days and days of warnings. Now we're getting swamped with calls left and right."

PA-Task Force 1 is one of 28 federal search-and-rescue teams that formed in states across the country after vast devastation from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake exposed gaps in the nation's emergency response system. Each team includes rescue swimmers, boat operators, hazmat experts, heavy riggers, medics, logistics specialists, and dogs trained to find people in collapsed structures. The teams work at the request of state and local emergency management officials, so members have little control over where they're sent or the sort of rescue work they're asked to do.

The Pennsylvania team worked in six different locations during its three-week deployment in South Carolina. Team members were paid by their employers, who later will be reimbursed by the federal government.

One call the task force caught in Dillon not long after midnight came from a woman who told the 911 dispatcher that she needed  to evacuate because water was spilling into her living room. Philadelphia firefighter Gabriel Salas, 37, was determined to find her before things got any worse.

Not knowing her exact location, and not wanting to waste time, Salas and another rescue swimmer sloshed through waist-deep water and began checking homes on her block in the low-lying neighborhood of trailers near the swelling Little Pee Dee River.

Power was down so the only light came from their flashlights and headlamps.

Water rescues during the day are tough enough, but at night, they can be even more perilous.

Rescuers can't easily judge the water's depth or spot hazards like snakes. They can't see where manhole covers might be missing beneath the water's surface or know when the current might pick up.

At one point, Salas' leg sank into the sand up to his thigh. He cursed, pulled it out, and kept going.

Salas and the team ended up checking every home on the block. Some residents had already left. Others didn't want to go. But they never found that caller or even her reported address.

By now it was dawn and the firefighters were exhausted – even though they hadn't rescued anyone.

‘Daddy’s got to go, buddy’

The next day, two Philadelphia firefighters were driving through town with members of the National Guard when they learned that an elderly woman needed help getting to dialysis. Her home was expected to flood, so getting treatment would have been a gamble had she stayed.

They knocked on her door, waited as she packed her things, and loaded her onto a bench in the bed of the truck, where they sat beside her.

"Philadelphia? You came all this way to help me?" Helen McCallum, 67, asked firefighters Mike Fanning and John Getty as the truck rumbled past acres of flooded cotton and soybean crops en route to a nearby hospital.

"We came all this way to meet you," Fanning said while leaning over to embrace the frail woman. "You must be the cat's meow!"

As Fanning and Getty crisscrossed Dillon that day – helping a man reunite with his sick wife, evacuating a family with three small dogs whose trailer had taken on water overnight, and pushing a stalled car out of a flooded roadway – they passed the time by talking about their families.

The two men, like many in the task force, are fathers with young children. Deploying on short notice and being away from home for weeks at a time is the hardest part of the work, they said.

This year, Getty had just enough time to celebrate his son's seventh birthday before leaving for South Carolina. But last year was different.

He and his wife and son were shopping at Toys R Us for the boy's birthday present. "I got word that we needed to deploy for Irma. And I left him there in the store," Getty recalled of the hurricane that struck Florida last year. "I told him, 'Daddy's got to go, buddy.' "

Salas missed his daughter's third birthday on this deployment, so all 82 members of the task force tried to make it up to her. One person held out a cell phone and FaceTimed the little girl with wavy black hair while the others sang "Happy Birthday."

Another firefighter missed his son's first few days of kindergarten. A rescuer whose wife is pregnant with their first child missed their initial sonogram appointment.

They end up forgoing professional accolades, too.

Firefighters Olly McDonagh, 43, and Joe Sharkey, 37, were to be recognized for valor at a ceremony back home they had to skip.

On a blustery February night more than two years ago, they dragged an unconscious firefighter from a smoky auto body shop garage moments before an oil drum exploded, intensifying a fire that burned for six more hours. All three men survived.

The task force's highest-ranking members made it up to them and another firefighter who had missed his promotion ceremony. At their temporary quarters in a gymnasium, the officers donned their full uniforms, gathered the others for an impromptu ceremony, and led them in applause.

Later, sitting on the curb outside the auditorium, McDonagh, a rescue swimmer, expressed frustration that the work on this deployment had been so sporadic. "It's not that you want a tragedy to happen," he said. "When you're this highly trained, you want the chance to perform."

He and other members say it's worth it to help even one frightened person escape a washed-out home or provide closure for a single family whose loved one drowned. Some days were slow.

They began with cups of coffee and temperature checks performed by doctors monitoring the team's health. Some members did laundry. Others worked out or played pickup basketball. McDonagh, an ex-zoologist, whose arms are covered in spider tattoos, would search for the eight-legged creatures in the bushes. One firefighter tore through four books.

On an especially quiet night in Dillon when it seemed that the task force might soon be sent home, some firefighters watched a football game projected onto the side of a tractor trailer while others played poker and puffed on cigars. Aretha Franklin streamed from a wireless speaker.

Task force members also used downtime to share war stories.

Bud Werner, 70, one of the group's oldest and longest-serving members, recalled the harrowing door-to-door searches he led in Gulfport, Miss., in the days after Hurricane Katrina.

"No one was alive. We only found dead folks," he said.

Each time, they would call the coroner.

"Members of the morgue team would come in wearing those white suits and shovel them up," Werner, a retired Philadelphia firefighter, said. "Between the water, the heat, and the mold, these bodies were so badly decomposed. Most of the time you couldn't tell male from female. They looked like piles of clothes. It was awful."

‘I can’t say thank you enough’

While Florence was a deadly storm that caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage, it wasn't the catastrophic Category 4 event that meteorologists had predicted when dozens of Philadelphia firefighters and other task force members dropped everything to deploy.

The longer the deployment lasted, the more the men and women missed home.

"Any day we're not working makes being away more of a struggle," said Fanning, a father of three who coaches varsity soccer at St. Joe's Prep. "But that frustration is a necessary evil. We can't abandon a place that's vulnerable because I'm tired and weary."

At least one family will be forever grateful for their sacrifices. That's the family of Charles Andrew Carter, the 81-year-old whom rescue swimmers recovered from a pickup truck.

Carter's son Denver said in an interview that his father rode out the storm with relatives in Lumberton, a North Carolina town about 30 miles away from where his truck washed off the road. Denver said Charles was intelligent and hardworking but also stubborn and wouldn't listen when his sister begged him to stay put.

He was determined to get back to his home in Bishopville to check on his property, Denver said, so he went anyway.

Rescuers recovered his body three days later.

Denver Carter choked up as he spoke about PA-Task Force 1 and the work the team did to bring his father home.

"I can't tip my hat enough," he said. "I can't say thank you enough. Without them guys from Pennsylvania, who knows, he could still be at the bottom."