First responders recall downtown Sioux Falls building collapse one year later

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - It's been nearly one year since the old Copper Lounge building collapsed in downtown Sioux Falls, trapping 22-year-old Emily Fodness and taking the life of 24-year-old Ethan McMahon. Now, first responders are remembering what that day was like for them.

Crews carry woman injured in building collapse to safety.

"That morning the call came in as a building collapse," Capt. Scott Anderson of Sioux Falls Fire Rescue said.

"We responded from Central, we were just getting back from a call," Capt. Kevin Sona said.

"We've had calls like that come in before and the first thing that went through my mind was a car hit a building and went through," Anderson said.

"And on the way there I just remember we had no idea what we were going into," Shelly Novak, a paramedic for Paramedics Plus said.

As updates came in ...

"'It sounded like an explosion, there's debris all over the street, so at that time I realized, this was going to be more than just a car through the building," Anderson said.

One of those first updates came from Capt. Sona.

"[We] turned the corner and we could actually see the dust settling on the road when we pulled up," Sona said.

Capt. Anderson was next ...

"I saw the dust cloud in the air and I realized that this was a true structural collapse," Anderson said.

Capt. Sona began doing a 360 around the building while the rest of his crew began evacuating and pushing back the crowds of people starting to gather.

"Surprisingly the people on the street backed up and were really quiet," Sona said. "It was really actually quiet on the road for a scene like that. The fire alarm was going off and that was just about it on the building."

There wasn't much time to process the scene. Capt. Anderson began giving out assignments. By the time Capt. Clint DeBoer's crew -- Rescue 5 -- arrived at the scene, in between Battalion 1 and Engine 51, he thought he had a good idea of what to expect.

"Initially it's a shock to actually see what had happened, there were cars on the street buried under rubble, there was people running around," DeBoer said. "It was pretty chaotic to start with."

"It was a moment of, 'Wow, there used to be a building here,'" Novak said.

The first three SFFR crews to arrive set up incident command and in the chaos -- had a place to start.

"Our first priorities are always rescue when we arrive on scene no matter what type of call it is," Anderson said.

And as Anderson took his position on 10th St. and Mall Ave. he found out that's exactly what they'd need to do.

"[Sioux Falls Police] PD and a couple of bystanders approached me and said, 'At least one person is inside the building,'" Anderson said."And a few minutes later it was confirmed that two people were trapped inside the building."

"And you start to realize that you're gonna dig in, we're here for the long haul," DeBoer said.

But SFFR also had to keep themselves safe. The department has two structural specialists on staff with expertise in these types of situations.

"When they arrived on scene we were comfortable going underneath the pile but until they arrived we kind of stayed on top of the pile with debris removal," Anderson said.

Incident command told paramedics about the victims, so PPlus set up their gear, then ... it was a waiting game.

"It was painfully brutal for me to watch these rescue guys taking handfuls, I mean, literally handfuls at a time of rubble," Jeff Kaufman, of Paramedics Plus said. "To try to get to this individual."

Once engineers gave fire rescue the OK ...

"We kind of split into two rescue groups," DeBoer said. "I was put in charge of rescue group two and our main priority and goal was to go under the collapse from the back side and try to get a good idea of where Ethan was buried under the rubble and try to dig him out."

Even though his crew had their assignment and the "all clear" from the structural specialists ...

"It's dangerous and had a lot of people questioning what we were doing there," DeBoer said. "They wouldn't ever do it out loud, but you could see in their eyes that they were worried about what was going on."

And after all the hard work ... 22-year-old Emily Fodness began to show through the rubble.

"Several times, 'We've almost got her, we've almost got her,'" Novak said.

"You could see parts of her body and they were holding onto her hand and talking to her," Kaufman said.

"Goosebumps," Anderson said. "It was unbelievable."

"When you're doing the work you actually don't think about the people watching and stuff but when they brought her out, it seemed like everything had stopped," said Sona. "It was a really good feeling to hear people cheer."

"They brought her to me she was just covered in dust and my main thing was just keeping her warm and getting the dust out of her eyes and giving her words of comfort because I can't imagine what she went through," Novak said.

"You know, we were all buried on the backside and we started hearing the cheering and it came over the radio that they had found a victim so that's a big relief," DeBoer said. "But we had one goal in mind and that was to find where Ethan was buried, so we just had to stay on task."

So they kept digging, but then ...

"Everybody that was on the pile, we kind of reset, as in, we all got together and made a plan to start searching for the second victim, who was Ethan [McMahon]," Anderson said.

"We have some search specialists that found him under some rubble," DeBoer said.

After Fodness' rescue and the rescue of her dog Milo ...

"They were such bittersweet moments because it felt like so many miracles happened over here, but you still have him over there," Novak said. "It was like, 'Can you just pull off one more for him, you know?'"

"It's really hard, we always want the best outcome," Anderson said. "A lot of the time we're planning for the best and when something like that happens, it's very hard."

"You get a little bit of sense of relief, but at the same time it's anguish, because there's nothing anybody can do," Kaufman said.

"That was sad, you know, it touches you," Novak said.

One year late, the first responders said they think back to that day often. For each of them, specific moments stand out.

"When we pulled up on scene and there was still a dust plume in the air," DeBoer said.

"I'll just never forget that scene in my mind," Sona said.

"I was in the Battalion car [and] when I got out there was line of people on the debris pile and they brought Emily down and the citizens started cheering and hollering," Anderson said. "I had no idea there was that many people on the parking ramp, so that was easily the brightest moment."

"Those last minutes when they were getting Emily out," said Novak. "This is it, this is what we've been working for and it all came together right there so that was the moment. I'll never forget that."

If that day couldn't have started unlike any other, Capt. Anderson normally works on Rescue 5 but was filling in on Battalion 1 that morning. As for Paramedics Plus, many of the crews that showed up that day weren't even supposed to be working -- they were supposed to be training new hires.

KSFY News reporter Erika Leigh also reached out to Sioux Falls Police to see if they wanted to be part of this story, but they declined her interview request.