N.J. Volunteers win Fight Against Flood Waters
With 2 of 4 pumpers trapped, Bound Brook handles house fire and gas incident
When tropical storm Doria put much of Bound Brook, N.J., under flood waters, the volunteer firemen summoned to assist fellow residents found that they, themselves, were among the victims.
A few minutes after 5 a.m. Saturday, August 28, last year, I received a phone call at home from police headquarters asking me to summon the members of our 125-man volunteer fire department to help rescue the inhabitants of flooded homes.
Box 7 was sounded to assemble the firemen at Relief Company 4 Firehouse. When First Assistant Chief Carmen Ruscetta reached the firehouse, he found more than 2 feet of water in the street. So by radio, he requested all apparatus to assemble on high ground at the parking lot of St. Mary’s Church.
When 1 left home in my chief’s car, there was 8 inches of water in the street and the flooding grew worse as I tried to reach police headquarters. So I had to detour to higher roads on the lower edge of the Watchung Mountain Range and go to the church parking lot.
photos by Bob Collister, Bound Brook Chronicle.
Pumpers under water
Once there, the problems faced by the Bound Brook Fire Department became apparent. Of the department’s four pumpers and one ladder truck, only the pumper of America Hose and Engine Company 2 and the ladder truck of Ivy Hook and Ladder were at the lot. Two of the pumpers were under water and the third had stalled in water while leaving quarters.
Only eight men were at the scene, as many were trapped in their homes or trying to reach the other apparatus. One of the many men who had tried to reach his apparatus was Fireman Joseph Shine. He reported that at one point he had to hold on to a no parking sign to keep from being swept down the street. Another fireman, Paul Sargent, returned to his home and brought back his boat, which he used to attempt to reach his firehouse.
Shortly after 6 a.m., a report of a fire at the home of Edward Straub, 535 West Second Street was received. The apparatus could get to within only one block of the fire because of the flooded street. Flames were breaking through the side of the house, and I ordered one line of 2 1/2-inch hose pulled by hand through waist-deep water to quell the fire. Ropes were strung between trees across West Second Street to help the men keep their footing. As soon as the first line was in operation, a second was dragged in and wyed down to two 1 1/2-inch lines. Neighbors helped firemen carry ladders and other equipment through the water. Although the fire was extinguished quite quickly, considering the conditions, the damage was so extensive that the house was a total loss.
During the house fire, members of Watchung Fire Company 3 had worked their stalled apparatus to high ground by using the starter with the engine in gear. After starting the apparatus and arriving on the fire scene, they were immediately dispatched to a report of a gas odor. Flood waters had broken through the front window of Angelo’s Brook Park Inn. As the pressure built up on the rear cinder block wall of the kitchen, it virtually exploded. Heavy stainless steel sinks, dishwashers and stoves were torn loose and thrown into the rear parking lot. Engine 3 roped off the area and stood by until the gas could be cut off.
I ordered all apparatus to stand by at No. 2 Firehouse until further notice as two of the town’s fire whistles and many of the pull boxes were out of order. Radio contact was maintained with police headquarters, which normally receives all fire calls.
As the water began to recede, a truck driver volunteered his diesel tractor to retrieve the submerged pumpers. In 3 feet of water, a tow cable was attached to the pumper of Relief Fire Company No. 4, which was towed to high ground. Upon approaching Hose Company No. 1 firehouse, the water was too deep for the tractor, and it was necessary to back out. I contacted a Marine Reserve unit in Middlesex, N.J., and requested that they send in one of their large military wreckers. Upon their arrival, it was found that the water was rising and even this wrecker, which could operate in 5 feet of water, could not reach the firehouse.
Warning of high water
Civil Defense Director John Mizerek told me that he had received word from the state Civil Defense organization that the evening tide would affect the flood level in Bound Brook, even though it was about 20 miles from the Raritan Bay and over 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. No. 2 pumper, which had a public address system, was dispatched to notify residents of the higher flood waters expected.
During Saturday and the following three days, the department responded to 20 alarms, including minor electrical fires, gas leaks, a car fire, oil spills resulting from fuel tanks overturned in cellars during the flood, and even a false alarm. One minor electrical fire was reported in the Bound Brook Rescue Squad’s building, which received serious flood damage.
By late Saturday night, the flood waters reached almost 6 feet on Main Street. Had a fire started in that area during the night, it would have been impossible to reach it. The police used power boats to patrol the town to prevent looting.
On Sunday morning, the Marines returned to pull out No. 1 pumper. The Apgar Trucking Company donated the services of one of its mechanics, who had the truck in operating condition later that afternoon. The pumper had been submerged more than 24 hours. No. 4 pumper did not return to service until Tuesday after being serviced by a local garage. Luckily, both of these pumpers were scheduled for replacement later in the year.
Starting Sunday, August 29, and continuing throughout the week, fire companies from all over Somerset County responded to our appeal for mutual aid. Sixteen companies assisted in pumping out hundreds of cellars and washing miles of streets covered with inches of mud. It even became necessary to pump out a rear yard area and two streets where the water would not recede because of clogged storm sewers. Also during the week, apparatus was used to announce the availability of food, clothing, shelter and the fact that the town’s water supply had become contaminated and should not be used.
Firemen remained on duty around the clock until midnight Monday, August 31. This meant that they spent three days sleeping in chairs, on the apparatus or on the floor, as No. 2 Firehouse did not have any sleeping quarters.
As a result of Doria, over $12,000 worth of fire equipment was damaged or lost.