By Walt Hunter
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Speaking for the first time, in an exclusive interview with CBS 3’s Walt Hunter, two heroes who found life beneath tons of debris at the Center City building collapse that killed 6 and injured 13 one year ago talk about the hours of searching with their teams – and their incredible elation – when they were able to pull 52-year-old Mariya Plekan alive from the rubble.
Philadelphia Fire Department John O’Neill, working with a team of fire department rescuers, along with Tom Brown, a FEMA search team specialist and his dog, Phoenix, told of the moments when they first discovered Plekan alive.
It was, Brown explained, a special bark from Phoenix that provided the first clue – a bark she is trained to make when she has found life.
“It was actually a shock at first,” Brown explained. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘she’s really barking.’”
Moments later, the sweet, life-affirming sound of Mariya’s Plekan’s voice, rose strong and clear into the June night.
“At that point I heard, ’help’, and I had to do a double take for a second,” Chief O’Neill, a 25-year veteran, explained.
“That’s when I raised my hand and said, ‘we’ve got a live one here.’”
Digging carefully with his hands, moments later, Chief O’Neill looked into Mariya’s eyes.
“I pulled back a piece of roofing material,” O’Neill told Hunter. “Then I saw her sweater. As I began to reach down, she moved her head, it startled me.”
Plekan, speaking through an interpreter at the rehabilitation center where she is recovering, after injuries forced the amputation of her body below her waist, says it was Phoenix’s bark that gave her hope she would be saved.
“To find somebody alive after 13 hours is a tribute to her,” Chief O’Neill explained. “It was her strength. She wouldn’t give up.”
And rescuers didn’t give up either. Thanks to them, Mariya is alive, reunited with her son, daughter, and granddaughter. But there is one reunion she is hoping for: a chance to meet the rescuers-and the dog-who saved her life.
It’s an invitation these heroes, grateful she is recovering, are only too happy to accept.
“We saw her at her worst, and now we get to see her on the way to recovery.” Brown said, adding, “Phoenix will be glad to join us, she loves everybody.”