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After Sandy, rescuers are tired but ready for another storm

New Jersey volunteer firefighters whose own homes were damaged by Sandy are working through another storm: 'We got this.'

November 07, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Much of Brooklyn, N.Y., is still without power and heat as another storm hits the area. In Brick Township, N.J., volunteer firefighters are ready for the nor'easter. "As we say here at Pioneer Company, we got this," one said.
Much of Brooklyn, N.Y., is still without power and heat as another storm… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

BRICK TOWNSHIP, N.J. — John Frankowski's bayside home was badly flooded during Superstorm Sandy, and he lost two cars in his garage. But as a nor'easter dumped a cruel coating of snow here Wednesday, he finished his eight-hour shift as a volunteer firefighter, then got ready for his night job as facilities inspector for the local school district.

"I'm just so drained," said Frankowski, 45, who goes by the nickname Seaside Johnnie. "But there are people worse off than I am. I've been doing this nine years. It's in my blood. Plus it helps take my mind off my own situation."

His situation is not unusual in the sodden, shivering Jersey Shore towns hit hardest by Sandy last week. First responders — firefighters, police, ambulance drivers and other emergency personnel — were among the tens of thousands of people whose homes were wrecked and lives upended.

Here in Brick Township, which includes barrier island communities that were scoured by Sandy, at least 10 volunteer firefighters and six police officers saw their homes flooded or worse. Electricity is still out, gas lines have been turned off, and piles of debris line the roads. Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for waterfront areas before the nor'easter hit, so the shoreline was deserted.

The homeless first responders still show up for work every day. One volunteer firefighter made the commute easy by moving his wife and young son into a borrowed recreational vehicle and parking it next to the Pioneer Hose Fire Company station. Others stay at the station, where they sleep on cots and eat meals prepared by the ladies auxiliary, a local support group.

Most firefighters in central and southern New Jersey are unpaid volunteers who haven't seen a paycheck in the 10 days since Sandy wiped out the businesses and shops that provide their day jobs.

The men at Pioneer Company, which has three fire engines, call themselves "the Fighting 22," because it's Station 22. As snow fell in thick flakes, it felt as if they were at war with the elements.

"It's a volunteer company getting a city-size call volume with the same guys running the trucks 24 hours," said Anthony Cozzino, 39, a father of two whose home was damaged in the storm.

Just then, a fire alarm clanged. A truck quickly loaded up and headed into the bone-chilling cold.

Michael Berger, 54, vice president of the company, says his firefighters have risen to the challenge. "As we say here at Pioneer Company, we got this," Berger said.

That's the motto they hung in the gear room, near a waterlogged American flag they salvaged in the storm. This being Jersey, the sign says, "We got dis."

They lived by that dictum those first few harrowing days after Sandy hit, when they rescued people using bucket trucks and rowboats. They fought electrical fires as floodwaters rose around them. They raced out again and again as pleas for help poured into the station.

"We were getting call after call with no intermission," Cozzino said.

They mobilized as best they could. Pioneer Company Chief Wally Eaton, whose neighborhood was flooded, initially ran some operations from his frontyard. Fire Marshal Kevin Batzel led divers to rescue trapped residents when a house caught fire and a car exploded at the height of the storm.

"I had guys who tied themselves to the [fire] engine with ropes to advance the hose to the fire in 2 1/2 feet of water," Eaton said.

When it was over, they were stunned to find boats dropped in the middle of the street, with telephone poles toppled on top. One man was found dead in his home in 2 feet of water.

Waterways that crisscross the township had flooded homes and roads, and the tidal surge cut through dunes and created a new channel to the ocean for Barnegat Bay.

Over the last few days, reinforcements arrived: firefighters from Lakewood, Ridgeway, Whiting, Jackson and other nearby towns, as well as the New Jersey National Guard and state police from Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. People sent food from South Carolina, pizzas from Connecticut.

The chief ordered his firefighters to take a break. Most refused.

"We love our town," Berger said. "We're going to try to get through this storm, put a Band-Aid on things and try to heal."

As the day wore on, the nor'easter hammered the coast farther north, knocking out power to some areas where it had been restored.

More than 1,000 flights in and out of airports in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., were canceled because of the storm, according to the website

Shashank Bengali in New York contributed to this report.

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