By Pat Ciarrocchi
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — On this second anniversary of the collapse of the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market, a miracle survivor met her rescuer.
On June 5, 2013, Mariya Plekan and Fire Chief John O’Neill saw each other amidst the rubble, not sure if they’d see each other again.
In Mariya’s rehabilitation residence, they embraced.
“I was the fireman who found you,” said O’Neill.
In halting English, Mariya, an immigrant from Ukraine said, I very, very thank you.”
The moment felt sacred. The last survivor pulled from a horrific building collapse, meets the fire chief who heard her cries.
Mariya described the searing pain and the fear that no one would find her, or would save her.
“I tried to scream, help,” said Mariya.
It was nearly 13 hours earlier that Mariya, a 52-year-old care-giver, had walked into the Salvation Army Thrift Store to shop. A wall being demolished next to the store collapsed onto the roof of the thrift.
Mariya was trapped, her legs crushed. Still she didn’t give up hope. There was a tiny crack that she was able to widen for air. Water dripped down. She put it on her face. Never losing consciousness, she waited.
At 11 p.m., in a moment of quiet, Fire Chief O’Neill heard a faint voice. “Help!”
“When I first saw her move, it scared me,” said O’Neill.
Within moments, the extrication began. Fire Rescue moved quickly. More debris was pushed aside and O’Neill could see Mariya’s head, but not her face. He kept talking to her.
“I realized it was dark and the light make it difficult to see,” said Mariya through her translator, Dariya Treban. “I was praying inside myself. They found me.. they found me.. and I am alive.”
Maria’s crushing injuries have been devastating. She has had to endure a bi-lateral amputation up to pelvis. The injuries complicated by infections. When asked how she feels she said, “So,so…not good and not very, very bad.”
Initially, Chief O’Neill, a 26-year veteran of the department, wondered whether, “not very, very bad,” was enough.
“In the first year, I found from my own faith and everything morally, what did I put her through?” he asked. “Did I give her quality of life back. I just struggled with .. was the other side of the coin better?”
O’Neill was asking, would death have been kinder, for this once vibrant woman. But the first anniversary of the collapse, Mariya had publicly expressed her gratitude to still be with her family. That changed everything for O’Neill.
“Sometimes, it’s very difficult to deal with what I have to do,” said Mariya. “I am thankful that you saved my life and I am able to join my kids every day and able to see my granddaughter and able to enjoy life.”
Anyone looking at Mariya would be moved by her courage. Her medical bills have topped eight million dollars. And the cost of her lifetime care will be astronomical, according to her attorney.
For now, two people brought together by fate can be at peace, knowing that the wounds you can’t see are healing too.