WILTON — Five Wilton firefighters who assisted with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts on Long Island saw devastating scenes that will be with them for the rest of their lives.
The group responded to everything from building collapses to car and home fires caused by seawater-corroded electrical equipment.
The men were deployed to Long Beach, on the westernmost of the outer barrier islands off Long Island’s South Shore.
“It looked like a wasteland,” firefighter Ray Bailey said. “Residents were piling up personal belongings outside their homes for garbage trucks to take away. It was difficult to see.”
The group was led by Capt. Stephen Penman and also consisted of Lt. Stephen St. Louis and firefighters Ryan Ward and Tom Meehan. The Wilton and West Crescent fire departments were the first two from Saratoga County to send personnel and equipment to assist in the relief efforts.
Wilton was specifically assigned to help the Long Beach Fire Department. Most of their roughly 165 volunteer members were trying to take care of their own homes and families and couldn’t respond to calls. The only people left were the department’s 25 paid members.
The Wilton group arrived early last Wednesday morning and stayed through late Friday, a 72-hour deployment, the longest allowed for mutual aid response under federal guidelines.
Each man remembers at least one unforgettable sight.
“Just the expressions on people’s faces, of devastation and losing everything,” Penman said.
People showed their appreciation by keeping firefighters supplied with food and words of encouragement, even in the face of disaster
The Wilton group answered 26 calls at all hours of the day and night and slept in the Long Beach firehouse.
“We responded to a gas leak about a block from the ocean and the tops of cars were covered with sand,” Ward said. “Then we went into an apartment and the whole room was wrecked.”
The entire island the city of Long Beach is on was under a mandatory evacuation except for during daylight hours, when people could sort through their belongings. Thousands were still without power when the Wilton group returned home.
“It’s just beginning. The worst is yet to come,” Penman said.
There’s a serious concern about fire when power is restored because of the corrosion caused by saltwater, he said. Before the Wilton group arrived, Long Beach firefighters had to battle a huge blaze when eight houses caught fire during the height of the storm.
“When we first pulled into Long Beach, I saw a whole bunch of cars parked at different angles along a 30-foot-wide grass median,” St. Louis said. “We found out later that they had floated there. That’s where they ended up.”
Meehan recalled one poignant moment when he spoke with a Long Beach firefighter.
“He started telling us how his house was gone, his vehicles were gone, everything he owned was gone,” Meehan said. “But he told us how appreciative he was that he and his family were alive and well.”