9/11 first responder describes mental and physical toll facing Florida building collapse search and rescue teams

CW39

SURFSIDE, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — The search for survivors is now on its sixth day after a 12-story condo collapsed in south Florida. 150 are still missing and 11 bodies have been found among the rubble.

It’s a grueling yet delicate task on a massive pile of twisted concrete and steel.

The scenes playing out in Surfside are eerily reminiscent of ground zero in New York after the September 11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.

Several first responders, paid the ultimate price when they responded to the 2001 attacks. They have faced, not only the dangers of that day but also the long-term health problems from being exposed to dangerous toxins.

Retired firefighter Rob Serra was at ground zero in 2001. He told NewsNationNow.com that the time it takes for these searches is the toughest part.

“You can’t simply just pick up a piece of concrete and move it, you know, that’s what we learned, you know, starting in Oklahoma City to ground zero, you know, it takes time to move those things,” Serra said. “There’s a risk of debris falling on you … You have to fight that urge to just dive in and look for people but you have to take your time. And I think that’s the toughest part.”

Rescue and search efforts in the aftermath of 9/11 continued for a long time after the tragedy. Later, it would become clear how dangerous chemicals in the air and rubble could lead to those first responders suffering serious health consequences.

Serra said his advice to first responders at the Surfside site is to make sure they wear their respirators.

“From what I can see, there are several toxins in that air… things that we faced at Ground Zero, the concrete dust, the pulverized glass, defiers in the voids. We all know what’s burning down there. There’s a lot of petroleum products being burned, you’ve been used in furniture and clothing. So there’s a lot of risks. So respirators are a priority,” Serra explained.

There’s also the mental toll. Serra encouraged first responders to take their mental health seriously.

“Make sure you talk to someone, get some sleep, you have to go home, you have to sleep, you have to eat, and you have to take care of yourself. And you can’t really isolate yourself from the people you work with and your family, you have to talk about it,” Serra said.

Serra cited a study connecting the PTSD experienced by many 911 responders with the physical toll they also experience.

“I think what we’ve seen with 911 is the connection between PTSD and the physical ailments. The list of illnesses grows every year. And from what the study’s coming out of Mount Sinai (shows) is the PTSD is accelerating those illnesses. So the earlier you can address them, the earlier you could talk about it,” Serra described.

3,000 members of the New York Fire Department alone are battling one form of cancer from 9/11. Environmental studies after cleanup efforts concluded there were 160 toxins in the air and dozens of cancers linked to the dust.

Thousands of first responders have died in the years since from illnesses all connected to 9/11. Serra worries that a lot of these illnesses take decades to manifest.

He believes that now with it approaching 20 years since the tragedy, more deaths and illnesses are coming.

“So, now we’ve already seen a lot, we’ve seen too many deaths, too many funerals. But it seems like that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Serra said.

Serra is on the board of directors for the Ray Pfizer foundation, which helps first responders following a crisis like the one in Surfside.

The biggest problem we faced was really getting the government to believe us. It took us 18 years to get them to believe that people were really getting sick and dying. And they shouldn’t have to wait that long. So I think they should learn from what we went through and reach out. Like I said to the professionals who’ve already done it, I think there’s a lot to learn,” Serra said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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