They had already been one the go for days when the call came in. From first-thing Monday morning Oct. 29 through the height of the storm.
Going out on around the clock service calls after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey left the Brookside Engine Co. running on adrenaline and the “thank yous” of Mendham Township residents and not much else.
But when the call came in from the county mutual aid coordinator on Halloween, there was no hesitation.
“We got the call at 11:30 a.m.,” Brookside Engine Co. No. 1 Chief Jay Alderton said. “They asked us to be ready for a deployment to the Toms River area by 1 p.m.”
According to Alderton, he spoke briefly with Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Evan Thomas and Mayor Sam Tolley and rolled out in the Brookside Engine by 12:45 p.m.
“Buzzy Thomas and Mayor Tolley were in full support,” Alderton said. “And although we were initially headed for a 24 hour deployment, the severity of the conditions forced us to extend it to 48 hours.”
Alderton said he was confident leaving Mendham Township due to the mutual aid agreement Brookside had with the Mendham Fire Department.
“I knew the residents were covered, which allowed us to go somewhere else where we were needed," Alderton said.
Alderton said the Brookside Engine reached the staging area in Toms River shortly before 4 p.m. and they had no idea what the situation they were heading into was like.
“We had very little information. And when we arrived we spent some time with some of the other task force members learning their apparatus,” Alderton said. “And then we waited for instruction.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
The Brookside task force was deployed shortly after 5 p.m. and traveled down Route 37 toward the barrier islands. No one had been allowed onto the islands since Sandy had passed through, and as the convoy approached the bridge to Ocean Beach, Alderton said they saw their first signs of life.
“We could see displaced residents along the way. They were smiling and waving flags,” Alderton said. “There were news crews there. There was such an outpouring when people saw us.”
The greeting the task force had at the base of the bridge was nothing compared to what awaited them at the Ocean Beach Firehouse.
“We were greeted by five fireman who appeared more exhausted than we were. As our task force pulled up these guys started to cry,” Alderton said. “The firehouse had no power, no heat, no food and these guys didn’t even have a change of clothes.”
According to Alderton, these firefighters had responded to 58 house fires in the previous 48 hours and NJ Task Force One hadn’t even made it to their part of the island yet to perform their searches and evaluations.
After a briefing from the division chief, the task force went out into Ocean Beach to begin searching for gas leaks and door-to-door checks for residents.
“There was so much water and damage,” Alderton said. “A lot of the mains were broken and pilots were out so the homes were filling with gas. Once they found an ignition source, they would explode.”
In their initial sweep of Ocean Beach, Alderton said the task force found six confirmed gas leaks, under search conditions that were less than ideal.
“Everywhere we went, we were walking on 2 to 4 feet of hardened and wet sand. The level of destruction was unimaginable,” Alderton said. “Homes washed away into the ocean, cars sand cresting up over the hoods of cars. The smell of the garbage and water and sewage was overwhelming.”
But the elements weren’t the only thing the responders were dealing with. There was an increased risk from the criminal element.
“We were assigned police escorts because looters were coming in by boat,” Alderton said. “The officers would stay ahead of the search crews and scout ahead.”
It wasn’t uncommon during the deployment that task force engines were called to block off access points and hose down anyone trying to get on to the island, Alderton said.
Trying to get their bearings, as also an issue for the visiting responders.
“I had never been to Seaside or that area at all. So it was a new area for all of us. It was like trying to orient yourself to an area based off of landmarks that were destroyed,” Alderton said. “Street signs weren’t visible. Route 35 North was wiped away. The guys from Ocean Beach stayed at the command post and gave directions.”
At 11 p.m., the decision was made to move the visiting task force to the firehouse at Seaside Heights. That firehouse had power courtesy of generators, and while they didn’t have running water bathrooms were being delivered.
“Once we settled in we were able to go walk the entire length of the boardwalk and could see fires in Mantoloking and Brick,” Alderton said. “That was really hard for us. We could see the orange glow in the distance, but we couldn’t get there. And that was difficult for us to comprehend. We felt helpless.”
Alderton said the iconic image of the Seaside roller coaster in the ocean was a difficult one to shake.
“I don’t have words for it. The photos don’t do it justice,” Alderton said. “The damage was historical and unprecedented.”
Sleeping wherever they could find a place to sleep, the visiting responders sacked out at 3 a.m.
A few hours later, before their first service call, the responders received a pleasant surprise.
“The church next door gave us a nice, warm breakfast,” Alderton said. “The outpouring of support and kindness from this church was phenomenal.”
After a fire alarm call, the Brookside task force was assigned to the Route 37 bridge where they performed decontamination protocols on anybody leaving the island.
“They didn’t want to bring it further off the island,” Alderton said. “We de-conned 10 vehicles and landed two helicopters.”
From there, the squad resumed gas leak checks and they went from the ocean to the bay door-to-door.
“The hardest thing for us was when people would ask us questions. We had no answers for them,” Alderton said. “Is it safe to be here? Can I leave? How do I leave?”
At 3 p.m., the Brookside Engine was able to get refueled, and at 5 p.m. when they had finished their gas leak checks, returned to a firehouse that was much improved.
“Power had been restored to the firehouse when we returned and that meant power for the Seaside Police Department as well,” Alderton said. “The bathrooms were up and running and we were provided a phenomenal dinner from the church again.”
Not long after dinner, the task force was dispatched to a pole fire on the north end of the island. What they found when they arrived there Alderton said was nothing short of staggering.
“We were in an area where 50 houses had burned down two nights prior. We were standing there with spot fires all around us. Boats through houses and police cars wrapped around telephone poles,” Alderton said. “As we put out these spot fires we could see there was just nothing left. Just big piles of rubble. And you could see the ocean waves breaking and running up against the back of the houses because all of the dunes had been washed away.”
The task force returned to the firehouse and spent the remainder of the night decompressing and talking to the other first responders.
“It was nice to get to know those guys. It was like picking up a conversation with someone you knew for years, even though we had just met,” Alderton said.
Early the next morning, after a couple hours of sleep and a hot breakfast, a crew from Cape May County arrived, and after briefing them on the conditions, the Brookside task force went back to the command post in Toms River for a complete decontamination of their vehicles.
“Then once the officers checked out, we were released,” Alderton said. “And it was back up north on the Parkway.”
As they rolled toward home, Alderton said they continued to see people on the side of the road waving to them, or in vehicles honking.
When the engine rolled into home at 12:30 p.m. that Friday, the firefighters were ready for a solid meal and their own beds.
But not yet.
“We caught a fire alarm on School House Road immediately when we returned to town,” Alderton said. “But after we were able to eat lunch and decompress at the shelter.”