CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Five of the rescuers who helped pull a survivor from the rubble of a home explosion in south Charlotte, spoke exclusively on Thursday with WBTV.
We sat down with Captain Chad Michael of the Charlotte Fire Department Station 3 and four of his firefighters - Matt Saraceno, Cody Whiteside, James Harrison and Chris Cangemi – who were on the rescue team for the Ballantyne home explosion last Tuesday afternoon.
“The call originally came in as a house fire call,” said Saraceno. “It was nothing out of the ordinary at first. It wasn’t until our first truck arrived there and laid eyes on it that we knew the devastation.”
It was then, they knew it’d be a unique case.
Whiteside described the house as "a rubble pile," and said that they pulled up "looking for a house, but there wasn't a house there anymore."
The say their focus from the beginning was getting the husband and wife out of the home. Dr. Jebran and Rania Karam lived in the million-dollar home in Ballantyne.
Miraculously, police sources tell WBTV that Jabran had managed to call 911 through his Apple Watch.
Charlotte Fire Captain Chad Michael said that being able to maintain communication with Jabran throughout the rescue gave them an added sense of urgency - they knew he was alive and wanted to get him out as fast as possible.
“I know when we were in there at one point I could see shelves and I knew then we were digging through what used to be part of a closet,” Captain Michael said. “But nothing was what it had once been. The survivor was on the phone with communications trying to give directions from what I understand, but it was also hard because nothing was what it had once been.”
The firefighters say they went straight to work, as a team.
They’d practiced and trained thousands of hours for rescues like this, though nothing was ever this large scale. Still, they say, it was almost like not thinking at all. Just all knowing their plan and moving ahead to make it work.
The main problem, of course, was the debris.
They needed to move massive beams and pieces of marble as gently as they could.
Think pick-up sticks: You can’t pick up the wrong one or they’ll all come tumbling down.
“Every movement must be made with caution,” Whiteside said. “Because if one piece of debris is moved the wrong way, it could cause a collapse somewhere else.”
Firefighter Cangemi called the situation “organized chaos.”
"I can't explain what goes through your head," he said, "you just know what you need to grab and what to do."
Firefighters Cangemi and Whiteside were two of the first to get their hands on the survivor. (They say Captain Jones from Station 32 was the first.) After they had moved the debris around him enough to where his torso was clear, firefighter Harrison jumped down into the hole with him to “give him a break physically” and support his back.
“I’m skinny enough,” Harrison said. “Every firefighter has a role and you see what needs to be done. I could slide into that hole and help hold his back up.”
In the meantime, other firefighters continued to remove the rubble from around his legs. When they rescued him fully, he was still talking - which was reassuring to both the team and the paramedics on site.
After the four-hour rescue of him, who they knew was alive, the crew immediately began searching for his wife Rania.
They thought she was still alive. It was still, they all five say, an “active rescue” in their minds.
And remember, this happened July 2. One of our hottest days. Temperatures were in the mid-90s. The heat index was 108.
The men say with their turnout gear and equipment – which they had on because the call originally came in as a house fire – it felt like 120 degrees for the heavy physical labor.
When asked what he told his team upon returning, Captain Michael said he congratulated them.
“I said ‘Great job,” he said. “Because it was. Everybody put forth the effort that was needed."
All five firefighters say they hate losing anyone. No one wants to ever have to recover any bodies. But all also agreed in this particular case with such intense destruction, it’s a miracle they found anyone alive.
Above all, these men give credit to those who weren't interviewed today. The rest of their team. A total of 84 firefighters with Charlotte Fire were working that day on the rescue, but over 100 were out there for support.
“We are but a small percentage of everyone,” Cangemi said. “Before this interview with you, we all agreed that we wish all 84 of us who took part in the rescue effort could be here. It was all of us who worked that day. I’ll never forget that day – but it was our entire team that worked it together.”