September 11 Attacks

Local First Responder Who Helped at 9/11 Used Expertise to Aid During Surfside

Twenty years later, those images stay with Dave Downey — the man who went on to run the fire rescue department in Miami-Dade. What he learned from 9/11 also came into play at Surfside

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On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, when a plane crashed into one of the world’s tallest buildings, word spread quickly — especially among first responders.

“I remember getting a call from the Urban Search and Rescue Captain saying, hey, you guys gotta turn on the TV. One of the buildings at the World Trade Center got hit by a small plane,” former Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Dave Downey said. 

Downey, who back then was a special operations Miami-Dade fire captain, watched the images coming from New York.  

“As firefighters thinking about, wow, what a job they’ve got. I remember looking right away and saying that’s no small plane. That’s a lot of fire," he said.

Then came the attack on the second tower.

“We immediately looked at each other and said, we’re under attack. This is not an accident,” Downey said. 

While those who got out of the towers were running for their lives, a gray ball filled the screen.

“We were looking and 'what is that cloud of dust?' and 'what’s going on?' Literally the phone rang from FEMA saying you’ve been activated,” he said. 

It took several days for his team from South Florida to make it to New York, but Downey recalls what it was like the first time he walked up to ground zero.

“It was overwhelming. I mean it was a sight that the pictures have never done it justice to me,” Downey said. “Standing there, looking 360 degrees around at the devastation — the size of the area that was involved is just amazing to me. And there were still buildings burning and there was still fire going on in the two collapsed towers. It was just very surreal."

The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department shared images that captured its team on-site.  

Photos: South Florida First Responder Who Ended Up at 9/11 Used Expertise to Aid During Surfside

“It was something that I will never forget because it was — it kind of took your breath away. You just can’t imagine what you’re looking at," Downey said.

One thing puzzles him to this day.

“One of the other things that I have never been able to get out of my mind is the idea that there were no desks, no chairs, no cabinets, no nothing. I was wondering, where is all the stuff from these offices,” Downey said.

They did find some of those who perished, Downey said, helping families bring closure.  

“We found quite a few people during our time there,” Downey said. “Our job is to bring closure. We want to bring closure by bringing live survivors back to their families and loved ones, but we need to bring closure to everybody. So, yes, it was comforting in knowing that we could help bring closure.”

Extended interview with former Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey

He had to again, this time in Surfside when the now-retired fire chief was called in for his expertise.

“You fast forward to this recent collapse in Surfside and things start going through my mind again,” Downey said.

“Every disaster is different. Every disaster has its unique wrinkle,” Downey said back in July, just a couple weeks after the Champlain Towers South condo collapsed.

Downey helped coordinate the rescue mission and eventually the recovery operation in Surfside.

“What happens ... is that you change your mindset,” Downey said in July, describing the transition from seeking survivors to “knowing that we’re going to bring closure to these families, but not in a positive way that we had all hoped.”

“That doesn't mean we’re not going to work as hard as we can,” he said at the time.

Looking ahead to Saturday, Downey says since he’s no longer the Miami-Dade chief, he will have a quiet day on the Sept. 11 anniversary.  

“On Sept. 11, I try to take the day to myself and think back — reflect back — think about my friends that were lost — think about how all those people that were lost and you know I haven’t forgotten that," he said.

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