In the shattered remains of what had been the International Nutrition plant, four Omaha firefighters worked calmly but furiously to free a man trapped in the rubble.
Operating in darkness, with ice-cold water pouring down on them from a broken fire sprinkler line overhead, they used their hands and a rotary saw to pull away the concrete and steel that pinned the man's legs to the floor.
After more than 20 minutes, they were able to free him and carry him to safety.
But nearby, firefighters found two other men they could not help. Both were clearly dead.
Omaha firefighters for the first time Friday detailed their response to Monday's fire and building collapse at the Omaha animal feed plant that left two dead and sent 10 others to hospitals.
The firefighters described a chaotic scene, arriving to find mass casualties, including two men who were badly burned. But they said it was also one where their training kicked in, the kind of event they continually prepare for.
“We make lots of responses. ... When we show up, it's not as bad as they said,” said Capt. David Kirchofer.
“But when we showed up ... we immediately saw two people who had second- and third-degree burns and who needed immediate medical assistance,” he said. “And suddenly you realize now we're in a real situation. This is the real deal.”
The firefighters worked at times under dangerous conditions, with shattered reinforced concrete hanging overhead that threatened their own lives. But they were able to free the man pinned on the second floor, and they got a ladder up to two other men who were trapped in a third-story window.
“Nobody wants your own guys to get hurt,” said Firefighter Josh Jensen. “But you don't really think about that. It's an objective you need to get done. You just do it.”
The Omaha firefighters responded just after 10 a.m. to a call of a “building collapse and explosion” at International Nutrition, 7706 I Plaza.
Engine 30 was first on the scene, coming from a call at 72nd Street and Mercy Road.
As they neared, Acting Capt. Chris Hopkins could see that much of the third floor of the building had collapsed onto the second, with smoke coming from the back of the building.
On arrival, they found several injured employees outside the plant, including the burn victims, who were immediately tended to. Firefighters could see two other men perilously perched in a window on what was left of the third floor. Firefighters were also told of others trapped inside.
Hopkins, a 17-year veteran, led a small group in search of those trapped. They found an open stairway leading to the second floor, water streaming down from above. In the stairwell, they encountered an employee who told them of a man trapped in a room up to the left.
After they found the victim, Jensen spoke to him and tended to his needs, seeing he was stable.
Hopkins and two other firefighters got to work clearing away the concrete, sheet metal, plywood and steel.
They had come in with axes and pry bars but soon realized they would need heavier equipment to cut through the steel and sent for saws.
After they freed him, they placed him in a basket stretcher. A brigade of firefighters passed him down the line to get him out the door.
The victim told the firefighters of a friend who also was on the second floor, wanting to make sure they didn't leave him behind. But in searching the floor, firefighters found only two workers who were dead, the fatalities of the tragedy.
Meanwhile, other firefighters from Truck 61 worked to help the two men trapped about 70 feet up, on the third floor. The men appeared fearful and were calling out, at times obscured by smoke.
Firefighters maneuvered a ladder from a truck up to the window. Capt. Dustin Guzman tried to tell them to wait until the ladder was stable before attempting to climb on. But in a reflection of their anxiety, they immediately jumped on as soon as the ladder reached them.
It took crews about 30 minutes to put out the fire.
A special team from Lincoln, trained to work amid such wreckage, then set to work and was ultimately able to recover the bodies of David Ball, 47, and Keith Everett, 53.
Of the 10 taken to hospitals Monday, four were treated and released. Six were hospitalized in Omaha and Lincoln.
By Friday night, three workers remained hospitalized.
John Broderick, 53, remained in fair condition at Creighton University Medical Center; Tomas Balderas, 37, was in fair condition at the Nebraska Medical Center; and Erik Ocampo, 20, was in fair condition Friday afternoon at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln.
During the press conference Friday at Omaha Fire Station 30, 6936 F St., the Omaha firefighters expressed their condolences to the families of the victims.
The six firefighters interviewed declined to take any special credit for their actions that day. It was all just part of the job, they said.
In fact, some of them didn't even stay until the end of the event.
They had to answer another call.
World-Herald staff writers Maggie O'Brien and Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.
Capt. Steve Crnkovich, 47
Years of service: 24
“We don't come across mass casualties very often. Everybody had a vital role. They did one heck of a job.''
Capt. Duane Eivins, 47
Years of service: 11
“We go into rescue mode. Risk a lot to save a lot. That's our job.''
Capt. Dustin Guzman, 42
Years of service: 16
“You don't think about what bad things could happen. You just go into action.''
Acting Capt. Chris Hopkins, 43
Years of service: 17
“You go back to your training and what you have to do. ... You just think about that.''
Firefighter Josh Jensen, 34
Years of service: 10
“You don't really think about (getting hurt). It's an objective you need to get done. You just do it.''
Capt. David Kirchofer, 47
Years of service: 16
“This is where the oath you took kicks in. This is where we are quite literally doing what we were trained to do.''