Sioux Falls, SD For the very first time, we are hearing from Emily Fodness, the young woman who survived the downtown building collapse earlier this month.
If you remember, Fodness was buried in the rubble for over three hours. Her dramatic rescue was broadcast live on KELOLAND TV as our viewers held their collective breaths minute by minute until she was finally pulled from the rubble.
Fodness says she was still in bed that Friday morning on the second floor with two of her dogs when disaster struck.
“I had turned over and by the time I turned over, I saw in the corner of my room, the floor just starting to cave in,” Fodness said. “The falling, honestly, went pretty fast. I didn’t realize, I fell 15 feet at that point; I just heard everything come on top of me.”
Fodness says she was conscious the whole time, but had no idea of the magnitude of the collapse. All she knew is that she was trapped.
“I couldn’t move my legs whatsoever; they were pinned under concrete, so they were in a lot of pain the whole time. But I remember I could feel my legs. I was like, ‘OK, I can feel them. You’re not paralyzed,’ from what I could tell. So that’s good,'” Fodness said.
Still, as she waited her emotions and fear began to take over.
“So I’m in here thinking, ‘Does anyone know I’m under here?’ And that was frightening to me,” Fodness said.
She says she couldn’t see much.
“I probably had about this much space in front of me and that was my bedding,” Fodness said.
That bedding was Fodness’ mattress. It had fallen on top of her, which rescue workers say probably protected her from other debris.
Just as miraculous, somehow her cell phone had fallen with her, but she couldn’t find it at first.
Her parents tried calling her repeatedly, but she couldn’t answer because it was behind her.
“I was trying to figure out where it was at, I stayed still and tried to figure it out. Because I’m thinking, ‘If there’s any way I’m going to get out of here, I need to get my phone,'” Fodness said.
Once she found her phone, she immediately called her mother back.
“‘Mom, I’m underneath this rubble. You need to send help.’ By that time I had already heard sirens come out and by the time she had gotten there and she said, ‘My daughter is in there.’ I could hear her voice cracking, ‘My daughter’s in there,'” Fodness said.
Fodness said she stayed on the phone the entire time talking with first responders while yelling for help as they tried pinpointing her location under all the debris. She said minutes seemed like hours.
“They still couldn’t hear me and this is probably an hour and half into it and I just broke down and cried and thought, ‘Am I going to die here?'” Fodness said.
As scared as she was, Fodness says she had to stay focused and not panic.
“Just took a moment and said, ‘OK, you need to relax. If you’re going to get out of this, you’re going to need to stay calm. Stay composed as well as you can,'” Fodness said. “I tried moving my bedding, but every time I did, it got close to my face, so you can’t do that otherwise you’re going to end up suffocating.”
Then a surprise appeared from out of nowhere. Her dog Nova survived the collapse and somehow instinctively found her and crawled toward her.
“Once she got up there, it was a relief. My dog was alive. ‘We are going to comfort each other,’ and that’s what we did,” Fodness said.
Two hours into the ordeal, rescue workers who had kept digging through the debris and talking with her on the cell phone finally heard her voice.
“I heard a couple of them say, ‘I can hear her. I can hear her.’ That gave me hope. So, ‘They’re coming; they’re coming,’ because what was three hours seemed like an eternity being under there,” Fodness said. “I remember the whole time when I was under there I had my hand out as far as my right hand could go because I’m like, ‘That’s going to be the first thing they’re going to see.'”
And they did. They saw her hand and held it.
Don Jorgensen: When they finally reached you and that firefighter held your hand, what was that like for you?
Fodness: Once Dustin grabbed my hand and told me, ‘I got you; I’m not letting go. We’re getting you out.’ I just started crying, saying, ‘Thank you.’ I couldn’t stop saying thank you, because in a moment when you don’t think you’re going to live and you’re not expecting that, it was a good moment.
When firefighters pulled her from the rubble, Fodness says she could hear people cheering.
Jorgensen: When firefighters rescued you and they were pulling you down through the rubble on the stretcher, what was going through your mind?
Fodness: I was in shock that I could see the sky. The entire way down I was so grateful. I wasn’t trying to move, but kept going back and forth as they were hauling me down, just thanking them.
Fodness injured both her legs and hips, but incredibly, never broke any bones.
She says her dramatic rescue was a bittersweet ending though because of the death of Ethan McMahon, the construction worker who died in the collapse.
Now she struggles with survivor’s guilt.
“It easily could have been me and I can have that feeling. ‘Why me? He’s a Marine; he just had a kid.’ I think about that kind of stuff. I wish he and his family had a different outcome. I know what I’m going through right now, but I can’t imagine,” Fodness said.
The Fodnesses have sent their condolences to the McMahon family and are heartbroken for their loss.
“I feel like our families will always be linked in a way but we will never know what each other is going through because we went through different battles. And I’m here and to lose someone the way they did is awful,” Fodness said.
Fodness’ emotional and physical scars will heal, but it’s going to take time as she tries to rid herself of a label she never wanted: the lone survivor of a building collapse.
“This event, this building collapse it’s left me with some things. I don’t want it to take away from my future. I don’t want to put off school. I don’t want to put off work. I just don’t want this building collapse to define me or take anything more from me than it already has,” Fodness said.