June 19, 2024
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June 19, 2024
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Englewood Fire Capt. Reflects on Surfside

The partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside no longer dominates the news, but it’s still fresh in Jeff Kaplan’s mind. Kaplan, captain of the Englewood fire department, was there as a member of the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Team. They were summoned to participate just before the rest of the building was demolished. And it was more intense than he had imagined.

“You see pictures, you try to capture the image of what you’re going to encounter,” he said in an interview at the firehouse. “But when you get there, that image is blown apart versus what you see in reality.”

What haunts Kaplan the most is what he saw when he looked up at the shattered apartments, knowing that just a few days before, people were in there, going about their daily lives. “Some of the images will always be stuck with me,” he said. “Like images of furniture that was left hanging, a headboard attached to the wall.” And then there was the great void when the building came down. “Imagine the size of a football field with nothing there except concrete rubble. We stood on this gigantic pile; four to five stories high. No people. All gone.”

Buried in the rubble was an object that became very significant to Kaplan, who is one of just a handful of Jews in the fire department and on the FEMA team. “I looked down to see a saucer at my feet with Hebrew letters on it—maybe it was for holding a kiddush cup.” It was surreal to Kaplan, that with hundreds of rescuers, the only perfectly pristine piece of china to survive intact had Hebrew on it, and wound up in front of him. His first thought was that he had found something that was important to someone, and he wanted to get it back to the family. To sort the possessions of the people who were lost, bins were set up on the site that correlated with the apartments. He put the saucer in the bin labeled B3, to match his location, and hopes that when the personal effects are distributed to the families, someone will recognize it.

Kaplan also brought back some incredible memories of heroism. He was thrilled to meet and work with Lt. Col. Golan Vach, commander of the Israeli Defense Forces’ National Rescue Unit and his team, who volunteered to come and help. “It was a unique experience working with the IDF team,” he said. “They came from half a world away but we had a common bond, Jewish rescuer to Jewish rescuer. Most of them could speak English well.”

The Israelis had an unmatched ability to assess where the victims would be found. “Their expertise was so spot on that they knew probably 90% of the time where the victims were located based on intelligence and speaking with the relatives,” Kaplan said. “Their experience and resources helped speed up the process and bring closure to the families.”

He’s hoping a program can be set up for New Jersey team members to go to Israel and train with the IDF. Kaplan said he has not been to Israel and said he would love to go.

In Englewood, Kaplan heads the fire department’s safety and training division. He’s responsible for bringing all members of the department up to date on the latest techniques. “Firefighters have to train constantly,” said Kaplan. “There are always new challenges and the department is always adjusting to current trends in the world.” Unfortunately, that means training for bleeding control and assisting with active shooter situations and terror incidents. “We wouldn’t have thought of that 20 years ago.”

Kaplan has been on the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Team for 15 years. It’s resume based, he explained; you need a certain skill set to be accepted. The team is made up of people with a variety of skills—firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, canine handlers and paramedics. FEMA funds 28 teams that are deployed around the country to respond to emergencies such as 9/11, hurricanes and building collapses. Teams are rotated and on call for specific months. Like everyone else, Kaplan watched reports of the initial building collapse in Surfside and wondered if he’d be sent. His team was on call for the month of June. He got the call six hours before it would have been the next team’s turn.

The team is organized with military precision and drills frequently to be ready. In under four hours, the team gathered at the check-in point in Wall Township and left in a convoy of 20 vehicles with tractor trailers, pick-up trucks and generators for the 30-hour trip to Miami. “We have to be self-sufficient and bring anything needed for a rescue operation.”

Once there, Kaplan’s job was to ensure no one picked up hazardous material and the area was decontaminated before people worked on it—a lesson learned from the 9/11 clean-up. “My job was to make sure that my people went home as safe as when they started and got back in the same condition.”

Physically, everyone returned safely. Emotionally, the team supported each other while they were there, talking about what they were going through. Before they left, the group had dinner and a debriefing session, in which they shared what was positive, what was negative and how the next mission could be improved.

They got tremendous support from the Surfside community. People donated water and snacks. A chiropractor and podiatrist volunteered to help ease aching backs and feet. Accommodations were excellent. On some missions, the bed is the floor of a school gym or an airport. In Surfside, the team stayed on a cruise ship that was being restored, with a chef who cooked hot meals for them.

Kaplan is glad to be home, and his wife and children are happy he’s back. He’s had some time to unwind from the adrenaline of the Surfside tragedy and return to a normal routine. Hurricane season, though, is getting closer.

Kaplan said his wife has put him on notice. “Don’t get any ideas. You’re not going anywhere,” she told him.

Meanwhile, he has already returned to the base for training. “We have to be in a constant state of readiness,” he said philosophically. “You never think a building will collapse. We are trained to go anywhere at a moment’s notice.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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