Sandy Recovery Comes from N.J. Firefighting 'Family'

July 7, 2013
About 20 Ventor firefighter came home to find that they too were victims of the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy.

July 05--When they got off duty after working through Hurricane Sandy, about 20 Ventnor firefighters went home to find that the storm's victims included them.

Their own houses, including many in the hard-hit Ventnor Heights section of town, were flooded along with their neighbors'.

But firefighters pride themselves on being like a family, and many members of this town's department responded to their mutual disaster as a family would. They have helped each other recover on their days off from work, putting together work crews that moved from house to house to undo the damage the storm did to them.

"We were just trying to jump around and help guys out because that's what you're supposed to do," said Mike Cahill, a veteran firefighter whose own house was partly flooded -- but not as badly as some of his buddies' places, he adds. "You're supposed to help people out."

Bert Sabo, a retired Ventnor fire chief, emphasizes this department isn't unique. He knows of firefighters from other towns who helped each other- and some who came to his town to help too.

But as their former leader, Sabo is proud of the way he has seen people step up and help each other -- and help other neighbors struggling to recover. He adds he has seen his guys also volunteer at the homes of people who aren't related to the firefighting "brotherhood," as he likes to call it.

"Firefighters help. Some are born that way. Some are made that way," he said, on a morning when the firefighting fraternity was shocked by devastating news -- 19 members of a forest-fire crew in Arizona died in a wildfire.

Sabo also lives in Ventnor Heights, and his family's home had a flooded garage. His wife lost her car in Sandy, and he lost a lot of tools and other equipment -- he's a "jack of all trades" who specializes in carpentry and woodworking. Still, he feels fortunate that he could go right back to his home after the bay went back to its home.

"But Phil still isn't back in his house," he said this week, taking a break from working on the kitchen at Phil Boyle's home, which isn't far from his own -- and is just a few doors away from the damaged home of another Ventnor fireman, Bill Devenny.

And even though Boyle still can't move back home, he has spent a lot of his off hours in the past eight months working not on his own place, but on the houses of other firemen.

These storm victims are lucky in that many of them are handy with tools that go well beyond firehoses and ambulances and large trucks. Kevin Flynn, a 22-year-veteran firefighter, has run a heating/air-conditioning business for even longer than that. He does it now on his off days from work.

And since the storm, he figures he has helped out 20 or so of his firehouse colleagues with new heating systems or water heaters or air conditioners. He also got a lot of help from other firefighters, who made teams that went ahead of him and tore out flooded pieces so that Flynn could move faster with the skilled, professional work of installing the new equipment.

"I know how to cut boilers out, but I don't know how to put them in," said Cahill, a father of four.

His kids -- ages 6 to 17 -- were commuting 50 miles from his sister-in-law's home in the Philadelphia area back to school in Ventnor because of the flooding in the Cahill home. So his firehouse friends made an early push to get Cahill's family back in a dry house, and it worked.

But although he's no heating expert, Cahill has "been doing construction work since I was 14," he said, working for a respected local builder. It was his whole income before he became a firefighter and a side job afterward. "And now I mainly just help out friends where I can."

A lot of the people he has helped after the storm were ones he works with. Cahill said he has even left his own home -- with a group of friends working on it -- and gone to help another firefighter.

"I'm not a painter or a sheetrocker by trade -- I'm not real good at it," he admits. So he has gone and done what he's best at -- including organizing jobs and groups of workers, along with using his building skills -- and let others use their talents where they made the most sense.

But Devenny, a seven-year firefighter who also was flooded, has to acknowledge that he's not exactly the handyman of the firehouse.

"I don't have the skills," he said, smiling as he added that "picking up lunch and getting coffee, that's about all I'm good for."

Still, he has gone around and done grunt work at a bunch of other houses. And he has been amazed at how many firefighters have come to his place.

"You don't know how you're ever going to repay them -- and nobody even expects it," Devenny said, adding that this job is a huge contrast with his last one, where he worked for 15 years. "It's overwhelming. In the casino industry, it's every man for himself."

Flynn, the HVAC specialist, was almost finished a major remodeling project at his own Ventnor home when Sandy struck -- and sent 4 inches of water over his floors. He lost a stove, a refrigerator and a dishwasher so new, they had never even been turned on.

He had a lot of help on that job from other firefighters. And he has had a lot of help recovering from the flooding from his work friends too. As he has worked for others, they have worked for him.

"A ton of guys ... at least a dozen people" helped at his place, Flynn said.

Marianne Callahan's husband, Joe, also is a firefighter, and their home in Ventor Heights was flooded too. She knows from years of experience that when your work vehicle is a firetruck or an ambulance, you're going to see some ugly, disturbing parts of life.

"Firefighters are a resilient group, but they can usually go home to get away from it," she said -- only in this case, their own homes were no refuge. They were casualties too.

"So he doesn't come home from work and relax, he comes home and faces the same thing he just helped the community with -- and that went on for months," she said.

Her husband was on those firefighter work crews, and his friends have helped at her home too.

"You realize you're not in it alone," Marianne Callahan said. "You can count on your neighbors and family and friends, and the firehouse is like a family. ... It makes you feel good when you see that."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


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Copyright 2013 - The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.

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