Middletown resident Walter Rash has been on hundreds of photo shoots, but none of them prepared him for the emotional scene he witnessed in Philadelphia on June 5.
"I got there when they were taking away the last two bodies," Rash said, describing the scene of last week's Center City building collapse that killed six and injured 13. "At that point, I wasn't expecting there to be any survivors, and I don't think anyone else did either, so I couldn't believe what happened next."
Initially drawn to the scene on a whim, the firefighter-turned-photographer was one of the few people on hand when rescue crews discovered the last survivor, more than 12 hours after a four-story building under demolition at 2140 Market Street collapsed into a Salvation Army thrift shop next door.
"It's the kind of thing, as a firefighter, you always hope will happen, but it almost never does," Rash said Friday. "I guess you could call it a miracle."
Rash said he was at home when he first saw news reports about the building collapse just before 11 a.m.
"My wife, Amber, works at an architectural firm around the corner from there, so I started calling her and she didn't pick up and wasn't calling me back," he said. "When I finally got a hold of her, she had no clue what had happened, but eventually they evacuated her building."
Soon after his wife departed for a previously-planned business trip, Rash decided to go investigate the scene himself.
"It was sort of a spur of the moment thing," he said. "I figured I'd go up and take a few shots."
He arrived just minutes before an on-the-scene press conference in which Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's announced that five women and one man had been confirmed dead.
"After he spoke, it felt like the air had been sucked out of the responders – like they had given up hope almost," said Rash, who spent 15 years as a paramedic and firefighter in Montgomery County, Pa., before opening his own photography studio in Middletown. "It gave me that eerie feeling like when I was working the clean up after Sept. 11. There was so much damage. You know you're not going to find anyone alive under there but you have to keep looking."
As Rash photographed the scene, he noticed a couple of rescue workers kept returning to a large pile of rubble just inside the Salvation Army.
"Someone else in the crowd noticed it too and said, 'I think they found something,'" Rash said. "Just like that, it was like someone had turned on a switch and all the sudden all these firefighters were running toward them and they started working really quickly."
Page 2 of 2 - What Rash didn't know at the time was that those first couple of rescue workers had just uncovered the hand of 61-year-old Kennsington resident Myra Plekam, and watched in shock as it recoiled under the debris.
"That's when they really picked up speed and it wasn't long before they had her on a stretcher and she was on a medical unit headed for the hospital," he said. "The mood went from deflated to joyous in a matter of seconds and all of the sudden everyone is hugging each other. I've never seen anything like it. The whole thing gave me goose bumps."
According to media reports, Plekam was upgraded from critical to serious condition early Thursday morning, although she reportedly remained in the hospital at least through the weekend.
In the week since the building collapse, a 42-year-old excavator operator has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and other charges, amid reports he was under the influence of marijuana and pain killers at the time of the incident. Neither the property owner nor the contractor has been charged with any crimes.
"To me, it seems like negligence and I would be surprised if the contractor and property owner aren't held accountable," Rash said. "Have you ever heard of someone demolishing a building right next door to a building with people in it? As someone who's been there and saw it first hand, I can tell you this is something that never should have happened."