By: Heidi Kronaizl, SDSU Marketing & Communications
Despite first viewing scenes of the Copper Lounge building collapse on social media while at home that December day, Mike Murphy’s mind kicked into action. A captain for the Sioux Falls Fire Rescue, Murphy was off-duty when he heard about the collapse. However, he knew he would soon be called in.
“I had to stand back and take it all in. You can’t imagine it happening in your town, but that’s when your skills kick in,” he said.
Murphy, a State biology and civil engineering graduate, is a structural specialist for the fire department. When arriving on-site, he evaluated the incident and advised the rescue branch on how to stabilize and move different parts of the broken structure in an attempt to rescue two people and three dogs.
He said response efforts were like three separate instances in one. With a combined effort made by first responders, city of Sioux Falls engineers and Henry Carlson Company, two excavators, a crane, Teleboom and a large vacuum truck were used to help clear the dust and debris that had fallen on top of those lying under the rubble. Responders first gained access to Emily Fodness, a woman who was in an apartment on the upper level of the building at the time of the collapse.
Murphy said in order to gain access to the second patient, he had to do some timber shoring, which creates a structure that temporarily props and supports buildings to keep them from collapsing further. He said he learned how to do this in CEE 458 Design of Timber Structures, he took from Nadim Wehbe at State.
Wehbe, who is now the department head for civil and environmental engineering, said that the timber design class is a senior elective course. However, it hasn’t always been taught at SDSU. Wehbe decided to re-introduce the course and teach it when he came to SDSU 19 years ago.
“I thought that this course was important considering most of the structures in the United States are timber structures,” Wehbe said. “Shoring in principle is very similar to the design of columns.”
Wehbe said that temporary timber shoring is not taught as a separate topic in the timber design course, but can be classified as a subset topic of columns and compression elements.
Murphy said timber shoring was completed to ensure the Copper Lounge building did not further collapse on the first responders when attempting to make the rescue. They had to “de-layer,” or remove the second and third floors, of the building in order to gain access. The second patient, Ethan McMahon, died due to the collapse.
“In a perfect world, we would have been able to rescue both of those patients,” Murphy said.
Three dogs that lived in the upper level of the building were rescued. The first dog was found with Fodness. The other two were detected thanks to Cisco, a live-search dog with the Rapid City Fire Department who responds to urban rescues within the state.
After working a 15-hour day, Murphy went home. He said that it took him weeks to recover because the incident was so mentally and physically draining.
“I had not responded to anything of this magnitude. I have been to smaller incidents, such as buildings with tornado damage or a car running into them,” he said. “SDSU played a huge role. My education was priceless for what I had to do that day.”
Murphy joined the fire department during his second year of engineering classes. He originally wanted to become a high school science teacher, but decided to make the switch to engineering during his junior year. The Sioux Falls native grew up near Station No. 5, where he now works.
“I remember when I was young, always seeing the fire trucks drive by and I took interest in that,” he said.
After seeing a job listing at the station, Murphy applied. During his interview, he said that he emphasized that finishing his education was very important. To his surprise, he was offered the position. For the next two years, Murphy commuted from Sioux Falls to Brookings to finish his degrees. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2008 and his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2009. He said he was happy to “see it come full circle” and finish his education. Wehbe enjoyed having Murphy as a student.
“You know, in our business, the best gratification is to see students apply the knowledge they gained while they were here in school. That’s the best feeling you can ever have,” Wehbe said. “It’s always good to hear from [former students] and know that they have achieved a certain level in their careers.”
Now as captain for the department, Murphy works three 24-hour shifts a week. He inspects the trucks and equipment, and continues firefighting, medical and urban rescue training when not responding to emergency calls.
“You hope you get a little bit of sleep and get to go home at 8 a.m.,” he said.
Because he has a civil engineering degree, he can take supplemental training for rescue instances such as the Copper Lounge incident. He’s glad he chose firefighting as a career because he finds helping people every day fulfilling.
“In all reality, when people aren’t sure who to call, they call the fire department; and we are happy to help them.”