Note: This guest blog is by Chris Aldrich, a firefighter for 23 years, (19.5 in Toms River with 2 of the 19 years as Fire Chief, 12 years as a command officer, 3.5 years in Whitesville FD, Jackson Township serving currently as Fire Commissioner), as well a Deputy Fire Coordinator, with the Ocean County Fire Coordinators for 3 years, and 14 years as a Deputy Coordinator in the Toms River Office of Emergency Management. Chris is a public adjuster with Andrew K. Knox and Company. Below is the draft of an article that will appear in Firehouse Magazine.
October 29, 2012, is a day that will forever change the Jersey Shore. Ten to eleven days prior to the storm, forecasters predicted the possibility of a hybrid hurricane/nor’easter that could make landfall directly on the New Jersey coastline. The storm was hyped as a super storm, over 500 miles long in size.
In the days advancing the storm, several meetings were held by various agencies in regards to emergency services preparedness.
On Sunday October 28, I had a meeting with my zone fire chiefs. As a county fire coordinator, you are responsible for a zone, of 10-12 fire departments located in a geographic area. I advised my fire chiefs, that I was watching Bob Weatherman Burger, a local, reliable, & extremely accurate meteorologist, (who had called the exact track of the storm 10 days prior to its arrival). I advised them to go home, secure their homes, secure their families, spend time with their families and make provisions for what could possibly be a 48-72 hour deployment in station, or active. I told them that the state OEM advised that after sustained winds reached 50mph, that we would not be responding to calls unless they were life or death. Polling the chiefs, I questioned their staffing knowing that our zone being highest geographically, and furthest from the shore, that we would be the automatic aid to many parts of the town, on structural task forces, as well as our 6 x 6 forest fire trucks for high water rescue, so in layman’s terms we would be busy. I as many of my comrades, went home secured my home, checked out my generator, filled my bath tub, food shopped, took a nap, watched football, & spent time with my wife & boys. Like a normal Sunday. Not knowing that the following day would change many people’s lives forever.
Monday, 29 October, 2012, a day that will live in infamy to New Jersians. Woke up, had become a doomsday prepper. I went to our obligatory meeting spot, 3rd avenue lot in Ortley Beach, for coffee with OEM Coordinators John Winton, & Paul Daley. Whenever the forecast called for a coastal storm, for 17 years that we worked together, this was our spot. Great view, Mother Nature looked extremely ominous this morning, with waves crashing 12-14′ at 10am. A township engineer happened upon our meeting, and questioned our prescience, to which I spun about our ritual. He asked how bad we thought it would be, I said "see those stairs, (pointing to the stairs that led 10′ down to the beach), they’ll be gone tomorrow". It seemed incomprehensible to him, but the stairs being gone, &the dunes being eaten away, were common occurrences with tropical systems, & nor’easters, this was almost like second nature to us, however that was disastrous to him. We had a plan for the worst case scenario, but everyone always laughed and joked, because we worried too much. But our job was to worry, our charge was to protect & help the public, in anyway we could.
Around 10:30, the melee of a day begins, pager goes off – “Ocean County Fire Coordinators, for a job in Ocean Gate, at the Ocean Gate Market." Knowing the building is almost a 100 year old building, and balloon frame, I knew the outcome would be likely bad. After listening for a while, many hours later the wind & conditions, nonetheless they got a handle on it.
So off to my house I go, after a couple more firehouse visits, I head home to get the dogs & my wife & head to my firehouse, Whitesville- Jackson Fire District 1- aka home. 1pm- All the members had their wives, kids, and dogs there. Once everyone got their berthing situated a few of us started to cook. Chicken Cutlets breaded & fried, salads, sausage & peppers, and what firehouse would be without some homemade chili. As we all started to settle in, the storm started to move in. Around 3:30-4pm, winds started to howl, we were getting reports of 60-75mph gusts on the island, and the seas were starting to become fearsome. At this time, Silverton fire company went to one of its typical low-lying areas, Longman Drive, for a working structure fire, with possible entrapment. A firefighters worst dream, coupled with some of the most ferocious conditions possible to fight a fire. As we are listening at our station, I can here the first due, 2921, go on location reporting a working fire, and that inbound units to use caution, as Longman was beginning to flood. At the time of this report the OIC, (officer in charge) reported 1- 1.5 feet of water in the street & rising. As firefighting progressed, the reports are fire is knocked down, however the water is rising, and now there is almost 4′ of water in the street. Turns out during this fire, 2921 will become totally destroyed as it took water into the engine, and the electrical system was submerged in salt water. As well tower 2905 is damaged during this job. This shall only be the beginning.
Then around 4pm, same call except Pine Beach, for 3 houses on fire, seems a tree ripped the wires off three homes, caused them to arc, and a blaze begun. The poor guys from zone 3 were not having much luck, Ocean Gate, Bayville, Pine Beach, Beachwood, Forked River, & portions of Toms River all working, and make excellent aggressive stops despite rapidly deteriorating conditions weather wise.
So around 7pm my phone rings, and its the Chief Coordinator, Brian Gabriel, he asks if things are quiet in the rest of the town, I told him about Silverton, as I am telling him, he asks me to stop, and says I have to call you back, I’ve got another structure fire. He gets on his radio to report a structure fire at Johnson Plaza, and old dilapidated 100,000 square foot shopping center. Just the kind of building to have a fire in during the onset of a hurricane.
Back to Jackson, lots of wires down, trees down across roads, winds picking up now probably 65-75 in Jackson. I remember being in the middle of Cooks Bridge road, cutting down a tree, and looking down at my cut, and looking up at the 75-80′ oak trees surrounding the fallen, wondering if one of them is going to snap & take me or my crew out. We abandon trees & wires due to the danger of hurting one of our guys and retreat to quarters for dinner. We get done eating, spend some time on the floor with the puppies & Diana, then get the call over my pager, "Ocean County Fire Coordinators, contact county for an assignment." This can’t be good. So seeing how the other guys are busy, I call the county on our secure channel, as now the cell service is sketchy at best. County says, we need you to get to a hard line & call Brick OEM right away. I call Brick OEM from the station phone, when the director says, "Chris we need help quickly from your zone, we have 11 working structure fires in Camp Osborne, on the beach." I tell him that help is on the way, & organize a 5 piece structural task force of 1 ladder, 3 engines, & 1 heavy rescue, and off we go, including myself & our fire chief, Scott Rauch from Whitesville as task force leader. We are heading to Pioneer Hose on Drum Point Road in Brick. We get there, walk in, the whole entire department is there, and they look worn out, tired, and scared. Like they’ve been ridden hard & put away wet. I walk into a meeting with Chief Rauch, Myself, & Chief Wally Eaton from Pioneer. "What do you need Chief?" Chief Eaton replies, I need a way to get to the island, I am up to possibly 18 fires on the island, so I say let’s go, he says we can’t, there is a house on top of the base of the Mantoloking bridge. I say there is no way, and one of the cops shows me a picture of the house on the base of the bridge. Now I understood their fear, if there was enough water to move a house on the bridge, and enough water to start home explosions, we were in deep trouble. But there’s no possible way it could get worse, boy was I ever wrong. We then went to Silverton Fire, as they were tied up, with every vehicle, boat, man, & mutual aid, performing life saving rescues on people who didn’t heed the evacuation order. The waters were so high that they were using front end loaders to get to people’s 2nd stories, & attics & retrieve people, who if not for their brave & heroic efforts, hundreds of lives would be gone. By the time we leave Silverton it’s almost 1am, and we are staring to show fatigue, but not to fail, the worst is yet to come.
Tuesday October 30, 2012
Get back to station round 1am, peace & quiet, some snores, dogs growling, and some good smelling leftovers. Get some food, a drink, then hit the rack until daylight when we can begin our damage assessment. Around 4am, I lay down in a cot next to my wife, my phone rings, and it’s Captain Steven Henry, the number two in toms river police, and probably one of the best tactical operations people I’ve been around, and I’m also proud to call him a friend as we were fire officers together during my time in Toms River.
Steve asks me my location, I tell him, and he replies, that he needs me, 3 of my 6×6’s from my zone to route 37 & fisher blvd in toms river at he Stewart’s, a what would be ground zero for the future. I said what do you need them for, he says he will brief me when I get there, but have all of us respond Code 3. Steve’s voice didn’t sound as calm and collective as I’ve ever known, this is a guy who’s tone doesn’t change when bullets are flying his way, this wasn’t the same Steve. I arrive with the trucks in tow, and route 37 & Fisher was under about 2′ water. Never seen that in 23 years in emergency services, water never made it that far. Steve pulls up along side of me, and says "I have 3 of my cops, 4 Lavalette cops & 6 firefighters stuck in the 2nd floor of the Lavalette elementary school." I say, ok we’ll go get them, but unbeknownst to me, we were about to enter a war zone. As we moved down Route 37, the water was heading up to the top of the hood of the 6x. The 6x radios that he can’t make it. Boats, cars, debris, floating in the middle of Route 37 in front of Seaside Furniture. Not a big deal send me a loader, Past Toms River District Fire Chief Everett Seaman at the helm, loader makes it half way, water is too deep, bogs down & shuts off in 5′ of water. So Steve says forget it, it’s not worth someone else getting hurt USAR is on the way, they are coming at 8am for a damage assessment. We find out later, asking for a swift water team, that USAR had been deployed to Hoboken for a river flood. As the swift water team deploys from Route 37, and makes it to the island, they start to radio the devastation. At about 10am the Blackhawks & State Police do a fly-over. Around 11am, USAR arrives, full team, full deployment.
A few more USAR SWIFTWATER boats arrive & deploy from various locations, and then come the victims, some trapped in attics, some trapped in 2nd floors, lines of school buses lined up on Route 37, and we are filling them up with victims off of the 6x’s as fast as they could. The victims are sick, cold, hypothermic, hungry, tired & scared. The buses have hot beverages on board, and are shuttling them to High school east as the shelter. We set up a Mobile Command Post at the intersection of 37 & Fisher. We are now hearing limited radio transmissions from the fire department, less than 1/8 of mile from us, they have taken on water, some apparatus are under water, & stuck, none have power, none have phone, things are getting bad. We start deploying regional coverage using strike forces from other parts of the county, as firefighters are becoming totally spent. And we find out that Mantoloking & Bay Head are no longer connected by Route 35, there is now an inlet running between, fire & emergency services are severed in their normal operations.
Wednesday October 31, 2012, Halloween
We meet at 6am with the OC Rust team, myself & the chief fire coordinator, 7 of the top brass of Police, and over the bridge we go. We get to the base of the other side of the bridge and drive through a tunnel of about an 8′ sand drift, that was fettered with spaghetti on the ground that was the balance of the electrical service to feed the island. It was extremely slow going. Captain Henry determined that A&P shopping center in Ortley would be the staging area, good safe parking lot, 6 lanes of access roads, great place except for the sinkholes. On our trip over there was a lifted dodge pick up, in about a 15′ deep sinkhole in the fast lane of the 35 n spur. There were 2 sinkholes on the 35 s spur 1 in the slow lane, 1 in the fast lane. USAR & rust, proceed with their tasks of going from home to home, securing utilities, searching for people trapped, in what would become a multiple day operation. Homes knocked completely off their foundations, homes lying in the middle of streets, gas mains leaking, water mains severed, electric lines lying all over, the most devastation Ocean County has seen ever.
Several meetings that day to establish protocols with all of the local police chiefs, fire chiefs, OEM’s, & NJSP. NJSP has a chance to finally fly the area, and video’s the damage. We get a chance to view the video, & still photos, and realize that things look bad on the ground, but look worse from the air. We are still unsure as to where fire apparatus can make it.
It is determined by USAR due to the conditions, they can only be operational during daylight hours. We have a meeting amongst the local fire chiefs, and determine its time to pull the trigger on what would be one of the largest mutual aid plans statewide. We needed regional fire suppression to the barrier island to protect USAR, along with the shore areas of the mainland, due to the fatigue of the firefighters in place, and the devastation of those firefighters’ personal lives. One fire company, Silverton, (in Toms River) had 31 of 47 of their members lost their homes. Through the NJDFS, we started asking for 5-7 structural task forces each day, as well 8-10 tankers fore fire suppression due to the lack of a continuous water supply on the barrier island. Tenafly, Moonachie, Lower Alloways Creek, places from the furthest stretches of NJ, provided day in, day out support of our firefighters. Some of the fire apparatus needed fuel before it could enter service due to the long drives. This mutual aid would remain in place for 5-6 days before things would start to become orderly.
This would be the first night where I would get a few hours sleep, for the first time since Sunday. It’s hard to imagine how refreshing a shower, and 4 hours of sleep felt, after days without.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
We try to make some access to other portions of the island, but still can’t. Chief Gabriel, calls on the New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s aviation unit, to take us up to get an idea of how bad, and where we can go. We take off from Island Heights Fire House, we start off south of island beach state park, doesn’t look bad, some sand, wash over, minor damages, we fly through Berkely’s south seaside park, Seaside Park, all about the same until you get to fun town pier, then the damage begins, not horrible but bad, then Ortley Beach comes into our sights, complete devastation, houses piled on top of houses, laying in the middle of the streets, cars into holes, looks like a bomb was dropped, then into Lavalette, which had some Ocean front damage, then back into Toms River & Brick, back into the war zone all the way into Point Pleasant, as I said previous Bay Head & Mantoloking are now severed by a 200 yard wide, by 200 yd long inlet right at the base of the Mantoloking bridge. Houses floating in the middle of the bay, disturbing sights.
We then fly over Silverton, whose green island section took damage similar to the island. Green Island is a sleepy tight knit community, who has flooded out before, but never like this, never with the power of Sandy. Homes off their foundations, something they haven’t seen or dealt with. The 1992 nor’easter pummeled them with a couple feet of water, but nothing of this proportion. Same with East Dover. We can only assume, due to the path of the storm, that when the new inlet formed, the surge of water through the new inlet is what doomed Silverton, Brick, & East Dover.
Friday November 2, 2012
Finally am able to get off the beach, (what’s left of), and am able to get to East Dover & Silverton. East Dover Firehouse has 3′ of water go through the entire firehouse, but is becoming operational again, when they took on water, they retreated to High School East as a makeshift firehouse until they can get their station repaired. Not much structural damage to homes, lots of flood, pleasantly surprised at how they held up. Then off to Silverton, a place I spent the best part of my 23 years in the fire service, (I had spent 19 years on Pleasant Plains, their sister company, and 17 years as a Deputy OEM coordinator in Toms River OEM), so needless to say I knew Silverton, and I knew the people. I walked into the operations room, and was greeted by Asst. Chief Gus Baxes. I got a chance to survey, as one of their members called the "junk pile," this was what was left of their fleet, 1 engine probably totaled, tower ladder with engine problems, heavy rescue severely injured, 2nd engine damaged, all due to flooding, they were using the reserve, and that came up damaged too.
Gus says as we walk back into the operations office, "look at the list," I look and most of the names on the list I know, have had BBQ’s with, been to parties with, fought fire & done extrication with, & considered friends, some very close friends. I ask if these are the guys who are still operational, to which he says no, these are the people who have nothing left, these are their members who have lost their homes. And this is a long list. These are people who wrote off their own homes to save their neighbors. The whole entire event, was disturbing to me, but never really hit me until then. Gus, my wife Diana, & I go on tour, no words can describe what the community looks like. The roads are virtually impassable, due to the debris on the sides of the road. We then see one of the heavy rescues detailed to Silverton, driving around with cases of water & food on the very top of the rescue, delivering it to the residents who lost their possessions. This is brotherhood, done by our brothers, this is the true spirit of firefighters, doesn’t matter that the rescue was from Bergen county, all that mattered was that these were firefighters helping.
Lost track of days & times.
Days became a blur, time dragged on, started to see sights I never expected to see in Ocean County. Louisiana & Mississippi State Police on Route 37; New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, & Massachusetts State Police on the island; off duty firefighters from FDNY at local firehouses riding trucks, so local guys can rebuild their lives; crews of firefighters from all over NJ, PA, DE, MD showing up with engines, doing 12-24 hour tours in firehouses, to give our locals rest, & to give our people a chance to begin the rebuilding process both mentally & physically. This help wasn’t requested, no pagers went off – this was the right thing to do, by people who just want to help. Sometimes in this business of emergency services it’s easier to ask forgiveness, & not permission. But the bottom line is its Brotherhood – it’s how we roll.
We have a lot more time needed to repair & rebuild, this is not something that will be done overnight, this is the long haul. But the support we have received from firefighters, EMT’s, and Police nationwide, has proved that no matter what the badge says, or the patch where you are from, we are all in this together.