It was the bang of roadside construction equipment along I-595 that did it. Suddenly, Nichole Notte wasn’t behind the wheel of her Jeep, she was back on the pile at Surfside with her search and rescue dog, Dig.
She could smell the dust of the crushed concrete and hear the shouts of her fellow first responders as they frantically — and fruitlessly — sifted through the rubble for survivors.
BEEP BEEP BEEP. Her forward-collision warning snapped her out of it. Notte slammed on the brakes, her suddenly tear-stained face bathed in the red brake lights of the car she nearly hit.
A Broward Sheriff’s Office Fire Battalion Chief and longtime member of the vaunted South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team, Notte was the first person on the scene with a canine that morning at Champlain Towers South condominium.
The 19 days she would spend on the pile undid her. She was trained to find the living but only found the dead.
By her own assessment, she turned from a swaggering, veteran firefighter with confidence and ambition to a lonely, anxious person plagued with nightmares, panic attacks and a crippling identity crisis.
One year later, she hasn’t returned to her job as a firefighter. Post-traumatic stress disorder haunts her, and she does four days of therapy a week to cope.
She isn’t alone. First responders — and civilians — with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Broward deputies sought counseling and time off in the months after the disaster. The departments, citing medical privacy, won’t share numbers, but admit the experience left scars for many working the rubble of a tragedy that killed 98 people.
Notte, 41, has spent the last year clawing her way out of the dark hole she dropped into the day she walked off the pile, a struggle that has redefined her relationship with her wife, her newborn daughter and herself.
“It’s so confusing because I have a job that I’m supposed to go back to, and I don’t see that Nicole that worked there. I don’t know where she went,” she said. “It just strips away your confidence to — and desire to — even want to return to that life of that person who you were before.”
“It’s confusing as hell because you’re like, should I work to be that person again? Or should I concentrate on who I am now and, and settle with that?”
A failed mission
Notte and Dig, a 14-year-old flat coat retriever, have gone through years of special training to do one thing: find living people.
When they first showed up at Surfside, they were determined to do just that. In the 45 minutes between the collapse and Notte’s arrival, a young boy was rescued from the rubble. She truly believed there had to be more survivors. It was such a big building.
In the immediate aftermath, other first responders heard a screaming woman trapped under stories of concrete. While they were trying to reach her, an unexpected fire broke out.
After they put out the fire, they never heard the woman again.
Still, Notte held out hope. Outside, people talked about pockets of air, about the miracle people that survived a full week after an earthquake sent their homes tumbling on top of them. She brushed off the change in mission directive from “search and rescue” to “recovery” and kept looking.
It wasn’t until day 19, when she went home, that the reality sunk in. For the first time in her career, she didn’t find anyone.
“I didn’t save anybody, and that’s what we do. And that’s the hardest part for me. I mean, even my dog is a live search dog, so my mission is to find live people and I couldn’t,” she said. “I failed my mission basically.”
That thought, and the experience of two straight weeks of 12-hour shifts combing through rubble and cherished belongings only to find bodies and parts of bodies was enough to tip Notte over a ledge. It was one, while doing the work, she didn’t realize she was standing on.
Becoming someone else
As rain drizzles outside and Dig snoozes on a well-worn seat cushion on the porch of the Fort Lauderdale home she shares with her wife and baby, Notte fidgets.
She peels off the label on her bottle of Yuengling, rolling the paper gone soggy with condensation between her fingers. She moves a tissue from the table to her eyes to her pocket, then refolds it and starts the cycle again.
Her life has shrunk post-Surfside to the four walls of her home. She really only leaves for therapy. Most of her days she’s outside in her garden, or training her other dog, Ember, or doing her best to zone out with TV shows or TikToks to keep out the intrusive thoughts.
After Surfside, Notte found herself in a new world of can’t. She can’t relax at the beach anymore, at least on any stretch of sand lined with condos. She can’t look at construction sites or cranes without breaking out in full-body chills. She can’t understand why she’s crying or why she’s so, so angry.
But the worst part is the loneliness.
“How could you fully understand or empathize unless you’re in this? So you just feel so alone, like nobody understands, on top of you feel like this different person. So all the friends that you have and even family members that you have, it’s almost like you’re ashamed to show them who you are now,” she said.
Becoming a different person also does a number on a marriage.
Notte and her wife, Michelle Notte, a lawyer, have been in couple’s therapy all year to fight for their relationship, and it’s not easy. Some months the specter of divorce looms so large it feels like a third person sitting on the couch.
“You get glimmers of the essence of who she is for sure,” Michelle said. “But the friend that I had, and the romantic partner I had, we don’t have that. We definitely don’t have that.”
Notte’s deployment to Surfside was hard on Michelle, 38. She had just given birth to the couple’s first child, Luca, three months earlier. Then, on her first day back from parental leave, her wife disappeared for 19 days.
Then the nanny quit. And Luca got sick. And the clients at the law firm she founded kept calling. Michelle felt like she was drowning, and then her wife came home with hollow eyes and a newfound rage that is still ebbing away a year later.
Michelle is still trying to adjust to the new reality. To entertain Luca one day, Michelle asked her Echo to cycle through some pictures. One of them was a shot of Notte in her battalion chief uniform, grinning at the camera.
A sense of loss hit her so hard tears welled in her eyes.
“I saw that picture and I was like, I knew that that’s not who she is anymore,” she said. “They say in sickness and health, but they don’t say in identity crisis and you get someone else.”
But she and Notte are doing the work, reading relationship and PTSD books and constantly, constantly communicating. They’re both determined to turn the worst period of their lives into a story of triumph in a long, healthy and loving marriage.
“I know that when we’ve been married 30 years, I’m gonna look back at this period and be like, wow, we made it through that,” Michelle said, tears running down her face.
‘I knew something was wrong’
Notte recalls standing in the chip aisle at Publix one day crying. Not just crying, sobbing. That happened a lot — the unexpected, uncontrolled weeping.
In response, she buried her nose in the wrapped fabric bracelet on her wrist. The woody, spicy, musky scent of the perfume oil she dabbed on it brought her back to reality. She was just there to buy tortilla chips. Nothing to cry about.
That’s an example of how Notte is learning to work with the sudden turns of her PTSD mind, like how her sense of smell has heightened. Her therapist said it’s part of the way trauma literally rewires the brain.
These days, a whiff of a dumpster on a neighborhood walk is enough to make Notte gag, despite the fact that she’s lived on the same street and smelled the same dumpster for years without that kind of reaction.
As each facet of her new PTSD self is revealed, Notte’s reaction is the same. That’s not me. Snap out of it.
She knows who she used to be.
The daughter of two marines, she had a destiny for public service others could see before she did. When a server friend signed them both up for the fire academy 20 years ago, Notte was all in, immediately.
She quickly set her sights on the prestigious search and rescue team, despite discouragement from a high-up figure in the department.
“He said, ‘You’re never gonna get on that team, Princess’. And that was like the fuel to my fire,” she said.
She took every class she could and earned every certificate until, as Notte puts it, “they basically had no choice but to let me on.”
That was a decade ago. A decade filled with deployments for disasters large and small, from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to a car wreck that flung a family, including a baby, into the Everglades.
Now, she’s not sure she’ll ever return to the career she loved and defined herself by for the last twenty years.
When she first came home, Notte was supposed to go back to work within three days. She knew that wasn’t going to happen. As a battalion chief, she made difficult calls for a living. She was the one who decides whether to enter the burning building, and after Surfside, she didn’t trust herself to do that anymore.
“Just on every level, I felt this overwhelming sense of insecurity, and that’s hard because I was extremely secure and very confident. And then you go to the complete, extreme opposite. So I knew something was wrong. I knew that I couldn’t return to work,” she said.
She was angry. Impatient. Alternating between crying jags and panic attacks that came with no warning and left her feeling empty and disoriented. And then there were nightmares. Some were straightforward flashbacks of what she witnessed on the pile and others were more abstract, like holding a sobbing loved one repeating “She’s dead” as a building collapsed around them.
Her wife, Michelle, is blunt.
“We couldn’t stand to be around her,” she said. “I would take Luca outside or go to my Dad’s, look for any reason to get away from her because she was super depressed or irritable, there wasn’t really much of an in-between.”
It took almost three months for Notte to see her first worker’s compensation-approved therapist. Her therapy is covered by insurance thanks to a 2018 bill signed by former Gov. Rick Scott that extended worker’s comp coverage to first responders diagnosed with PTSD, even if they don’t also have physical injuries.
She spends three to four days a week in different types of therapy. One, called EMDR — short for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — has patients focus on their most awful, traumatic moments while experiencing physical stimulation like taps or blinking lights.
For Notte, her moment is the image that made her leave the pile. The moment she found her friend’s mother.
Out of respect for the family, Notte didn’t want to share the name. But the remains of the woman were some of the last that were found after the collapse. Notte had been specifically searching for her for days.
“I know what color purse she was holding. I know that she was standing in a doorway. I know that she was trying to leave,” Notte said.
That moment punctured the barrier between work life and personal life. Back in her tent that evening, Notte knew that her time in Surfside was up.
“I didn’t feel successful, but I felt like that was gonna be the extent of my success. And I knew that that was the point that I was done emotionally, physically. And I had to go home,” she said.
Bringer of light
Waiting for her at home was 4-month-old Luca, who had just figured out how to pull herself up to a seated position.
Luca doesn’t know the old Notte. She only knows her “Omi,” her mom who holds her and makes silly faces at her and feeds her the candy-sweet cherry tomatoes in the garden. She squeezes her Omi’s cheeks in her hand and screams with delight, the smile scrunching up her round cheeks and bright blue eyes.
On Fridays, when it’s just the two of them, Notte has no choice but to get out of bed and put on a smile for Luca. Before long, that smile often turns real.
“She’s like my own little happy coach,” she said, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Motherhood has also been a balm to the rough patch of her marriage.
“Even when we’re livid with each other, if Luca says something or, she’s looking for attention, everything stops. The whole world stops, which is nice because it allows us to kind of step outside of ourselves,” Michelle said. “I have learned to love her in a different way because of how she loves our daughter.”
The couple chose her name as a fun play on their last name, Notte, which means night in Italian. Luca means bringer of light.
That couldn’t be more true for Notte. The easiest part of her new life, she says, is being a mom. She’s oddly grateful for all the time she gets at home to watch her daughter grow.
“It’s been one of the best times in my life at one of the worst times in my life. So I feel like in a way Luca has saved me,” she said.
Even with Luca’s buoyant presence, Notte still describes her day-to-day existence as struggling to hold her head above water. Waves of grief and rage and guilt still swamp her, but now they’re a little smaller. And maybe less frequent.
She hopes that one day soon she can start to swim forward and start to envision a future for herself. But she knows she can’t change the past, and she doesn’t want to.
“Everyone always asked me if you could take this all back and not have gone, knowing you were gonna have to deal with everything that you’re dealing with. I still say, ‘No, I still would’ve gone.’”
Notte looks down at the black hair tie she tugs at in her hands. She looks up, spreading her hands, asking herself the same thing she’s wondered for a year.
“What the f--k is wrong with me?”
BY ALEX HARRIS