Oct. 30--VENTOR -- There was a moment a year ago as Sandy was already sending water through the town when the firefighters on Ventnor's second platoon realized the depths of their own predicaments.
"Phil, me, Flynn, Joe Callahan, we're seeing the water level rise," recalled Capt. Michael Cahill of the Ventnor City Fire Department. "And we're saying to each other, if it's this high, it's got to be in our living rooms."
And it was, pretty much. Half of Ventnor's 42 firefighters had homes damaged in the storm. And a year after a day the firefighters would, actually, rather not think that much about, Cahill and the others on his shift got off at 8 a.m. and figured they had to do something.
And so, after dropping kids off at school and other assorted dad errands, they gathered at the bar at -- where else but -- trusty Robert's in nearby Margate, a friendly enough place at that hour.
"This time last year we were all chest deep in water, walking around the town, trying to deal with issues," said Cahill, 46, father of four whose family was displaced for five weeks, relegated to the upstairs of their home for months, and who still needs to elevate his home in Ventnor Heights.
"I've been thinking about this coming up for a couple of weeks," he said. "I was hoping the ocean gets cold first [so there would be no storms]. I'm just tired of it."
Cahill is a veteran of Katrina, of 9/11, of traveling to other places to help out after disasters. But Sandy struck him and the others in this Jersey Shore town a different way: Even as they were called upon to do the waterlogged heroics of the job, their own homes and families were being deluged.
"You push away your own stuff," said Kevin Flynn, a firefighter also at Robert's Place on Tuesday morning. "You leave your own stuff and go help everybody else."
And so they did, even as they responded to call after call with flood waters rising, cars bursting into flames ignited by seawater, several building fires, people panicking as the high tides approached and asking to be evacuated, the only vehicle able to get down Dorset Avenue in four feet of water, a city public works dump truck.
They piled 10 guys into the back of the dump truck, loaded the hoses and set out to the low-lying streets of Ventnor Heights, a scene of disaster, but also of familiarity.
"It's your neighbor, your friend, your relative, everybody's calling us," said Ventnor Fire Chief John Hazlett, over at the Newport Avenue fire station, a place that had not flooded in a hundred years but which took in two feet of water during Sandy.
All the stories the old timers ever told -- the storm of '62, the hurricane of '44, they always ended with, "And not a drop of water in the firehouse."
But this generation's storm, Sandy, will carry a different lesson, the now familiar photos of fire engines with two feet of water around them, the Pathmark parking lot and Wellington Avenue looking like a river, epic photographs of Cahill and the others wading through four feet of water in the Heights in their fire gear, sometimes pushing a canoe or boat.
Nobody had chest waders a year ago; they do now. Then, the boots filled up with water immediately, and truly, nobody dried out for days. The calls were coming in from the Heights, and then from Philadelphia: "My dad is at this address, can you check on him?"
"We were constantly moving, trying to keep warm, nothing got dry," firefighter Tom Halpin said outside the firehouse at the change of shift Tuesday morning. Although his own home was undamaged, he sees the toll on his fellow firefighters. "I can see the guys are worn down by it," Halpin said. "I'm glad it's not happening again. I feel bad for everybody."
Hazlett, who just finally got the tarp off the damaged roof of his own home, said it took some time for reality to set in.
"It was an emotional toll," the chief said. "Sometimes I think it takes time to surface. You're beat up, fatigued, trying to deal with everything. The first week was total chaos. Things slow down a little bit, and you start dealing with your own problems. A lot of guys couldn't get the help they needed. It was very frustrating."