When Hurricane Sandy unleashed its fury on Long Beach Island on Oct. 29, the Atlantic Ocean quickly breached Ship Bottom’s dunes, turning the island’s streets into an extension of the sea.
About then, the small population of island holdouts who had refused to evacuate began flooding the borough’s 911 dispatch with calls for help, some of them screaming for help from their windows and doors.
Officers from the borough’s 12-man department answered those calls, steering an 14-foot, flat-bottom boat with a small outboard motor through waves and rushing water 6 feet deep, pulling residents from their homes and carrying them to safety. The boat can hold four to six people and was meant for fishing and crabbing, police said, but it was what they had to navigate through the flooded streets.
“People were calling 911 and we’d get an address and we’d get out there and go. We weren’t stopping until we got to them,” Patrolman Brian Tretola said.
For the next day, it was controlled chaos for those officers, who had no time to sleep as they rescued some 40 residents.
“Red bull, coffee and Advil was our diet for a few days,” said Sgt. James Butler.
Two days before the storm hit, Ship Bottom Police Chief Paul Sharkey called for backup from the National Guard and received a humvee and standard cargo truck that would be used to evacuate residents.
The cargo truck is called an LMTV and weighs 2½ tons. The vehicle is meant to drive through up to 30 inches of water, although conditions were much deeper on the streets in Ship Bottom, police said.
When the truck made its way to the Route 72 Causeway bridge, the officers said they watched as a home floated across the bay and hit the bridge as the truck fought the wind over the bridge.
When the storm hit, officers worked with four members of the National Guard, using military and police vehicles and Sgt. Scott Barr’s personal boat. The boat pushed through the water, fighting winds of up to 65 mph.
Because of the wind and water depth throwing the small boat around, things got hairy during the rescue attempts, Barr said.
“At one point, Brian went under completely out of the boat. I thought I was going to have to jump in and pull him out. But I looked over the boat and he was hanging on and pulled himself back up,” Barr said.
As the storm grew stronger, the frantic calls continued to come in.
At 28th Street, a woman was trapped in her vehicle that had stalled and was filling fast with water rushing into the street from the ocean and bay.
“She just froze and wouldn’t let go of the steering wheel. She’s sitting there in the car and the water is coming up to the steering wheel. I had to calm her down and actually pull her fingers off the steering wheel,” Barr said.
Barr pulled the woman out the car and she was transported to the hospital where she was treated for hypothermia.
Their next stop was Beach Haven, but the water was getting deeper as night fell and the island lost power.
Abandoning the boat, the officers loaded a military truck and prepared to head south to pick up 20 more evacuees at the Engleside Inn.
But before that could happen, Patrolman Kyle Jones jumped out of the truck to rescue someone at their home, only to disappear briefly under rising waters, Barr said.
Jones emerged, and continued on his mission as the the truck backed up to a man’s front porch. The man was pulled to safety.
By then, it was too late to continue south. The conditions were becoming too dangerous, the officers said.
“There were two of us in the back of the truck, and we could feel it starting to float. Then it couldn’t go into reverse. Then the headlights of the truck went under water. They were like fish bowls and Sgt. Barr had to hold a flashlight out of the truck so the driver could see where we were headed,” Tretola said.
“When you felt the truck start floating, your heart stops and you realize what kind of situation you’re in,” Barr said.
The officers’ escape from Long Beach Island that night was also harrowing as Sandy’s winds grew even stronger.
“At one point on that bridge it was pretty scary. I could feel us moving when we got to the top it and it felt like we shouldn’t have been on that bridge,” Tretola said.
They arrived in Stafford Township and found safe refuge for the residents at the township’s municipal complex.
Soaking wet and exhausted, there was no time to dry out or rest.
They headed back to the island.
“We weren’t going to stop until we were done. We wanted to go back. We had to go back,” Tretola said.
Army National Guard Lt. Eric Shaw said about 750 residents were evacuated that evening, many by military transport, but still others by local fire and police departments, some such as Ship Bottom, using whatever resources they could find that night.
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