Ventnor firefighters remember Sandy, a day they'd rather forget

At Ventnor's fire house, (from left) Chief John Hazlett, Lt. Joe Deibert, Capt. James Culbertson and Sean Latimer talk about responding to Hurricane Sandy.
At Ventnor's fire house, (from left) Chief John Hazlett, Lt. Joe Deibert, Capt. James Culbertson and Sean Latimer talk about responding to Hurricane Sandy. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 31, 2013

VENTNOR, N.J. - There was a moment a year ago, as Sandy was already sending water through their 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.

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 children 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, a father of four whose family was displaced for five weeks and relegated to the upstairs of its 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 Shore town in 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 who was also at Robert's 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, buildings on fire, 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 was a city dump truck. They piled 10 guys into the back of the 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 that 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 in their fire gear wading through four feet of water in the Heights, 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 not damaged, 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."

The night of Sandy still seems surreal. "We were driving down Dorset Avenue, vehicles are burning, cars and trucks are floating down the street, doors and trunks open, electric systems short-circuiting, docks floating by us. It was pitch dark. You couldn't see your hand. Cold water everywhere. You're almost thinking, how are we going to get over it? It was like Armageddon."

In the weeks after Sandy, the firefighters responded to 878 calls, many seeking pump-outs of water from their houses.

But they also were dealing with their own ruined homes. And so they took on another task: helping the other guy.

Cahill, a builder, organized firefighters willing to help out at homes. Retired Fire Chief Bert Sabo just started showing up at people's homes, people's mothers' homes, to pull sheet rock or do whatever was needed. A year later, the guys still are amazed at all the help the former chief gave them, all unsolicited.

Flynn, also a heating and air-conditioning contractor, started ordering units to replace the damaged ones, storing them in Cahill's garage.

Those who could afford to lay out the money started getting their homes back together.

Firefighter Phil Boyle, displaced until this month, managed to front the money to get his Oxford Avenue home elevated, with help from firefighter crews laying a cement-block foundation. Like everyone else, the wait for outside help has been excruciating and mostly fruitless. "We're doing all the work on our own homes, also helping other people," Boyle said. "Mike's trying to get his family back in, then he's going to work on his wife's cousin's place, my place, his neighbor's place."

From down the bar, Flynn added, "But if it wasn't for everybody else, who would be back in their house?"

"A year later, two things I know for sure," Cahill said, summing up for the others like the platoon boss he is. "One, I'm dry today. And two, I know who my friends are."


For more coverage of the effects of Hurricane Sandy one year later, go to

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