EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — While Scullville firefighters were out rescuing motorists from Sandy’s floodwaters, their main firehouse and much of their equipment was being submerged in salt water.
Black water reached 16 inches high in the station, partially submerging two fire engines and destroying air compressors, chainsaws and one of the company’s Jaws of Life. Two weeks later, the volunteer company is still drying out Station No. 1 on Somers Point-Mays Landing Road.
“We’re used to seeing two or three inches out in the street — not two feet inside the firehouse,” said Assistant Chief John Webb, shouting over the din of 51 ServPro blower fans and 11 humidifiers.
Last week, township officials said representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency assessed the damage at $5 million. But what that means in actual cost and insurance reimbursement remains unclear.
“That’s what they decided in calculating the total damages from the storm, but the costs may be different,” said Township Administrator Peter Miller.
The fire engines and the station itself are insured, Miller said, but the amount of reimbursement may not be known for some time. Also, those policies may not cover lost equipment that wasn’t kept on board the trucks.
In addition to firefighting equipment, the station lost most of the appliances and furniture in its fire hall and kitchen. Fire hall rentals help the all-volunteer company pay its mortgage and afford new equipment and training.
“We’re in a very precarious situation right now,” said Chief Michael Fiedor, whose been with the company for 29 years.
“We’re just kind of sick,” he added. “We’re still here, we’re still going to be able to respond to calls, but I just don’t know what the long-term will be.”
Two fire trucks that were in the station when it was inundated and several others that drove through cresting floodwater to perform rescues are all in operating condition. But Fiedor said they may not stay that way for long.
“With the salt water, all of this is going to start to deteriorate, starting with the wiring, the brake pads and the exhaust system,” he said. “At this point, it’s a question of when, not if, it’s going to happen.”
Making matters worse, Fiedor said some equipment — from hoses to wet suits — has been made unusable because of contaminants such as diesel fuel in the water.
Webb said the company is getting help from its neighbors. The firefighters are using Somers Point’s air compressor to fill the tanks they use with breathing apparatuses. And a number of other departments have offered to lend equipment as needed.
The company had considered moving one of its fire trucks out of Station No. 1 before the storm, but ended up not doing so. In his 26 years with the company, Webb said he’d never seen waters reach so high. And the firehouse, which was built in 2001 at a cost of about $450,000, was a full foot higher than the one that preceded it.
“No one ever thought this was going to happen because we've never had it before,” he said.
Webb, who lives next door with his wife and three daughters, slept in the firehouse Sunday night and stayed throughout the day Monday with seven other firefighters in anticipation of storm-related calls.
Somers Point-Mays Landing Road flooded Monday morning, but it wasn’t unprecedented. Several of the “kids,” the young volunteers, got in a canoe and posed for photographs.
When the storm surge came Monday night, Webb was on Facebook. The company’s historian and in-house photographer, he had posted photos from the area around the firehouse and was chatting with a resident who was concerned about her home.
He remembers telling her “it wasn’t that bad” just before one of the kids yelled for him to come downstairs.
“Yo, Webbie, the water’s coming into the firehouse.”
“Is it up to the doors?”
“No, it’s in the firehouse.”
When he scrambled down the stairs, Webb found water rushing through the cracks of the bay doors, one of which bent inward at the force of the water. He ordered the younger volunteers to grab any equipment they could to stow up high.
As second nature, he started snapping photographs of the scene. Every few minutes, he documented the height of the surging murky water with a yellow tape measure.
Then Webb heard the sizzle of the baseboard heaters shorting out and dashed over to the breaker box to cut electricity to the first floor.
Tensions rose with the water.
Minutes after the start of the surge, Egg Harbor Township dispatchers squawked calls for help through each of the eight firefighters’ pagers and the station’s speaker system: a structure fire in West Atlantic City, a person trapped in a car in Scullville.
“You’re wanting to hear what other companies are doing,” Webb said. “But there was nothing we could do to help them; we can’t run to the other side of town.”
As the water rose more than a foot high, Webb and another firefighter tried in vain to kill power to a scissor lift in the back of the station. It was humming just as the baseboard heaters had done just minutes before.
“We didn’t hear the battery explode,” he said. “We just heard a pop and then we could see acid floating out on the water.”
At that point, there was nothing left to do. Webb instructed the other firefighters to open the bay doors to dilute the water and go upstairs.
Before he joined them, the assistant chief walked around the building snapping a few pictures of the station at the high water mark, 15.5 inches. It had stopped just an inch sky of the toilet bowl rim in a downstairs bathroom.
“The water in the toilet bowl is clearer than the water on the floor,” he said. “I can sit back and laugh about it now, but when it was happening, I was like, ‘oh my God’.
“You’re just at a loss of words when you something like this happen.”
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