Even as his neighbors gathered supplies for relief efforts in the wake of Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy on Nov. 3, Lt. Robert Fox of the Collingswood Fire Department was preparing to head into the heart of the devastation in Ocean County.
As a battalion chief, Fox was appointed head of a regional task force that included three fire engines from Collingswood, Runnemede and Pennsauken; a rescue vehicle out of Bellmawr and a tanker from Gouldtown.
Accompanying Fox from Collingswood were his aide Julian D’Alonzo and an engine crew comprising Lt. Ed Glaze and Lt. Glen Schueler, with Glaze holding formal command of Engine 16.
Their mission: to offer 24 hours of relief to the beleaguered Silverton fire company of Toms River, NJ, where more than 20 members of the volunteer station had completely lost their homes to the storm.
The call for aid from Silverton was routed through a state system that found a match of equipment, personnel and specialization in the regional crew headed up by Fox.
“A structural task force is just like our urban and suburban fire departments,” said Collingswood Fire Chief Keith Davis. “It’s like sending a whole fire house up to cover another fire house.”
The group mustered in Bellmawr, left at 6 a.m. Nov. 3, and was dispatched to Silverton from Toms River later that morning.
“We got to the fire house and their heads were spinning,” Fox said. “There were some families in and out; they had their hall set up with ladies’ auxiliary and food, areas to rest for people coming in and making relief.
“They needed help,” he said. “They were in bad shape.”
The road up was marked by physical damage that worsened the closer the company got to the bay. Inland a mile or so, homes were still without power more than a week after the storm. State police roadblocks barricaded off any point of entry to the neighborhood to prevent looters, and homemade plywood signs likewise warned any would-be thieves, “U Will B Shot.”
“There was trash from the contents of houses piled up 10 feet high, lining the streets,” said Fox. “Boats on people’s lawns, whole blocks devastated. There were garage doors off, pilings in people’s living rooms, sunken boats in the bay.
“It’s hard to explain; it’s hard to describe,” he said. “We’re used to seeing tough stuff but it was just something that I didn’t expect.”
After the initial shock, the task force went to work, rolling through neighborhoods and making a presence, Fox said. They distributed as much water and ice as their convoy could carry; handed out coats and blankets to an elderly couple who refused to leave their home. Help was coming Sunday, they said—and never mind the five feet of water in their house.
“It was going to be down in the 30s Saturday night into Sunday,” Fox said. “You just felt for these people. People had a lot of pride. They didn’t want to leave.”
The task force also provided a deeply valuable and much-needed sympathetic ear to survivors of the storm, Fox said.
“They wanted to vent and tell us their story,” he said.
At the conclusion of the assignment, Fox, et al., were physically and emotionally extinguished, he said.
“We were so exhausted,” Fox said. “We closed our eyes in the car, and one or two of the guys laid down on the back seat in the floor of the engine.
“We were exhausted, but that’s what we do,” he said.