New Jersey Responders Call Sandy Their 'Finest Hour'

At the height of Sandy's fury, with calls for help pouring in by the hundreds, they didn't think about heroics. First responders just did their jobs, one rescue after another.

In the Scullville section of Egg Harbor Township, they pulled a man from his SUV as a rising tide quickly reached the door handles.

On the Ocean Heights Avenue Bridge between Somers Point and Egg Harbor Township, they helped another motorist stranded in his disabled car as water crept up on both sides of the span.

And in Brigantine, they carried a wheelchair-bound woman by surfboard from her home to a waiting boat, then lifted her to a truck for the trip to a nearby shelter.

Up and down the Jersey Shore, Oct. 29, 2012, was a day first responders won't soon forget.

"This was our department's finest hour," said Chief Jim Holl of the Brigantine Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, which covers one of the five barrier islands that were under Gov. Christie's evacuation order.

Emergency personnel guided boats down streets-turned-canals and plucked scores from houses and cars.

Some drove huge front-end loaders and military-style vehicles into inundated neighborhoods, and others waded through rushing water in wet suits, looking out for debris, downed wires, and snakes, officials said. In West Atlantic City, they encountered a houseboat on the Black Horse Pike.

Their efforts came as their equipment - and sometimes their firehouses - was flooded with destructive salt water, causing millions of dollars in damage. While some firefighters were rescuing others, their own homes fell victim to Sandy.

"Every single guy had fear for his own safety," Brigantine Capt. Tom Bordonaro said. "But you see firefighters running in when everybody else is running out.

"Are we heroes? I don't think so. We're just doing the job we signed up to do."

A week after that harrowing day, first responders are looking back on their performance with pride.

"Panic set in during the afternoon [of Oct. 29] as the winds and rain escalated and the tide came in," Holl said. "People who didn't evacuate realized they made a horrible mistake and began calling 911."

The Brigantine Fire Department engineered rescues with five skiffs from a local rowing club, a pickup truck, and two high-clearance public works trucks.

"We put the boats in the water and headed down the streets, pulling people off their front porches," said Holl, a 27-year department veteran. "The water was waist-deep, then up to the neck."

At one point, the water reached "the lip of the front door" of the Brigantine firehouse, he said. "I thought for sure it was coming in."

About 2 p.m., firefighters helped a disabled man who was connected to a breathing apparatus built into a wheelchair weighing hundreds of pounds, Bordonaro said.

They hooked him up to a portable breathing unit, then moved man and chair separately by boat to a truck for evacuation. "It was a race against time because [the unit] was only good for about 10 minutes," the captain said.

An hour later, Bordonaro and another firefighter were called to rescue a wheelchair-bound woman and her 12-year-old son as the waters surrounded their rancher.

He was wondering how to move her to the boat when a resident with a military-style truck suddenly showed up with four firefighters - and a surfboard. The woman was carried from the house on the board.

"The 12-year-old was as cool and calm as he could be," Bordonaro said. "I saw so many heroic things that day."

Brigantine firefighters' operations were temporarily called off by 3:20 p.m. because of dangerous conditions. "We were in places where the ocean was crashing through the houses," the captain said.

In Scullville, Chief Michael Fiedor came upon the man trapped in his SUV during the afternoon. A four-by-four truck was dispatched and firefighters got the man out.

Rescues became even more dangerous at night. When firefighters found the motorist stranded on the Ocean Heights Avenue Bridge at 10 p.m., they waded through water up to their waists - clutching onto a rope - to bring him out, the chief said.

Asked why he had ventured out, the man said, "That has to be the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life," Fiedor recalled.

"It's pitch-black out there and we were running over stuff all night. You don't know what's in the water - live wires, water moccasins, fish, anything," he said. "That's the scary part. But people are panic-stricken and waiting."

During the chaos, the Scullville firehouse became a victim itself.

"We lost everything - the hall, the kitchen, our gear," Fiedor said. But the crew continued on the job.

Once the water was removed, an assistant chief - whose own residence was flooded - moved into the firehouse. Another fire official's home also was swamped and lost electricity.

"Not only were they rescuing people but trying to take care of their own properties," Fiedor said.

The life-and-death calls from the public came first.

On Mays Landing-Somers Point Road in Scullville, a frightened couple, their 2-year-old boy, and their dog were stuck in at least four feet of water about 11 p.m.

They were "screaming to get attention," Fiedor said. To make matters worse, "the dog got excited and bit the man."

By the time Fiedor arrived, residents had helped the mother and child to dry ground. The man - bleeding profusely - was looking for the dog.

Rescuers in wet suits later placed him in a front-end loader to seek medical attention while Fiedor took the woman and her son to her mother's house nearby.

In the midst of Sandy's wrath, a Bargaintown house caught fire when a woman dropped a candle that set off a bedspread and curtains. "But we saved the house," Fiedor said.

Nearby, in the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township, tidal flooding picked up a houseboat, sent it crashing into the sun porch of a home, then deposited it in the middle of the Black Horse Pike.

"We used a front-end loader to move it," said Chief Wally Bakely of the West Atlantic City Volunteer Fire Department Company No. 5.

A combination of boats, dump trucks, and loaders were used by firefighters to pluck dozens of people from houses and hotels, including the Ramada Limited and Howard Johnson on Route 322.

"The hurricane was bad, then real bad. But you couldn't think about it," said Bordonaro, of Brigantine. "You had a job to do and you did it."

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