A week ago this Sunday, calls started coming into the Co. 1 firehouse around 6 a.m., volunteer firefighter Tom Murphy said. The firefighters had been waiting for the calls since about 9 p.m. the night before.
The first calls weren’t that difficult, he said. An elderly couple taken from their home on Divine Drive only required a flat-bottom rowboat.
From there, as Hurricane Irene rains came down harder and the Ramapo River crested and overflowed, pouring thousands of gallons of water into Mahwah streets, the rescues got a little more complicated.
Major roadways – Route 202, Route 17, Franklin Turnpike – were flooded, leaving firefighters only one access road into and out of some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the township.
According to Mayor John DaPuzzo, two dams in New York broke, 80 homes were directly damaged by water, and at least four foundations blew out during the storm.
“In the course of five hours near Catherine Drive, I watched the water rise from the bumper of a van, to its roof,” Murphy said.
Co. 2 had left a fire truck in that area the night before, which Murphy called a “lifesaver.”
“Until the water went down on Chestnut Street allowing up to get our trucks and equipment in, that [Co. 2] truck was what firefighters were using to help people.”
All of the township’s emergency response teams were out – the entire fire department, police department, CERT team, Ambulance Corps., EMTs, and others, working to save lives.
The fire department used its 500-horsepower fan boat and an army truck that can drive through rising water to rescue anywhere from 20-30 people.
The people they saved were of all ages, from senior citizens to “an 18-month-old infant that needed to get out of the house before the water got too high.
“We got to a call and two little girls were standing there with backpacks, waiting for us,” Murphy said.
“My friend, Billy, [another volunteer firefighter] even rescued a Rottweiler who got scared and jumped out of the rescue boat into the water; he was able to get him back in. People nearby who were watching applauded when the dog finally got back into the boat. It was surreal, like a movie moment.”
Because Mahwah is one of the only nearby municipalities with a dive team and so much water-rescue equipment, the fire department was also called in by towns that needed help saving people.
In Oakland, Murphy said, the FD saved a man who was stuck in the rushing water, hanging onto a tree limb.
According to Councilman Chuck Jandris, Fire Chief Brian Potter drove an ambulance containing two volunteer ambulance workers, a police officer and a patient out of harms way when a live wire went down nearly on top of it.
Jandris, who was out Sunday volunteering as an ambulance worker, says the job done by the emergency responders and law enforcement officials in the township were unmatched. He moved Thursday night that the town council formally thank these men and women for their service during the storm.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we are volunteers, and we have to be at work somewhere else Monday morning,” Murphy said.
The rescued residents said they owe their lives to these volunteers.
“The fire department was awesome. Our community would not have made it without them,” said Christine Ervin, a Catherine Ave. resident.
All in all, Mahwah emergency responders were out from about 9 p.m. Saturday until about 2 a.m. Monday, when the final call about a truck having driven too deep into the water had been answered, and the driver rescued.
“It was hard, it was hours and hours on end without food or water,” Murphy said. “At first the adrenaline gets you through, but you do get tired. Looking back on it, though, it was so well worth it, getting to help your neighbors like that.”
“We knew we weren’t leaving until we got everybody out. And we did, and I am proud of that.”