How local volunteer firefighters saved two families
By Michael Turton
Local fire companies, profiled in recent weeks on Philipstown.info, share at least one very strong mutual feeling – their frustration over the fact that many local residents don’t understand that they are not paid firefighters – but rather volunteers who make their living doing “regular jobs,” while still answering calls anytime day or night, to assist residents – whether it’s a fire, traffic accident or other emergency. The volunteer nature of local fire companies was brought home dramatically as Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc across Philipstown on Aug. 28. Of the many situations that occurred that day – washed out roads, destroyed bridges, flooded basements, cars floated away – nothing was more dramatic than the rescue of two families from their homes along Route 301 after Clove Creek had quickly turned into a raging torrent, swollen by Irene’s heavy rainfall.
One of the rescues was led by a jewelry storeowner who volunteers with the North Highland Fire Company (NHFC). A social studies teacher who volunteers with the Cold Spring Fire Company (CSFC) led the other. Jim Matero, owner of Jaymark Jewelers on Route 9, has been with the NHFC for 17 years. A captain, he is also a former chief of the Montrose Volunteer Fire Department and has conducted firefighter training on behalf of New York State. But mostly he makes and sells jewelry. During Irene he was the operations officer in charge of one of the rescues.
When he and about 17 other firefighters arrived at the house it took only an instant for him to assess the situation. “I knew it was big trouble given the amount of water and how fast it was moving. There was a definite threat to life – both to the civilians and our guys. There was a high risk to both.” Adding to the risk was a situation at Glynwood, just a short distance upstream. The NHFC incident commander was in constant radio contact with Matero – warning him of the very real threat that the dam at Glynwood could give way at any time – sending even more water cascading downstream towards the firefighters and the families. County officials were also assessing whether or not to open the dam in order to reduce pressure on it – a move that would also send more water downstream. Matero said that the house was being battered by such a strong current that, “Even without the dam breaking I wondered if it would stay in place.” Four adults, a young boy and their dog needed to be rescued from the house and fast.
The distance was too great to throw a rope across the water. Instead Matero had one of his firefighters wade into the rapids in an attempt to get a rope to the house. The first two attempts failed. On one attempt the firefighter lost his footing and was almost swept away under a car in the driveway. “If he had been swept under the car, the hydraulics would have held him under, and he would have drowned. I’m not exaggerating,” Matero said. The third attempt worked and the firefighter got close enough to throw a rope to the owner of the house who secured the line to a tree. A second rope was tied on and a pulley system set up. “Now we had something we could pull the boat with,” Matero said. Then came the tricky part – getting the people to safety. Adding to the stress was a radio message from the incident commander, “You gotta hurry. There’s a problem with the dam. You gotta move.” The boat, similar to a small Zodiac was quickly sent across along with life jackets. The grandfather and boy were the first to be pulled to safety followed by the grandmother and the wife. The husband was last. On his trip across the creek the boat stuck on some rocks. When he stood and lost his balance he had to be dragged to safety.
“The threat of the dam breaking was so imminent we left all the equipment in place and got out of there,” Matero said. There were a few bumps and bruises among the firefighters but no serious injuries. The family was taken to the shelter that had been set up at the NHFC on Fishkill Road. “I’ve never seen anything like that in 30 years. Not even close. Considering the risk involved, the threat of death, not one firefighter didn’t do his job. I can’t say enough good things about the guys – and I mean men and women,” Matero said. At one point during the rescue operation, Putnam County Executive Paul Eldridge stopped at the scene and helped to man one of the ropes. No sooner had the firefighters returned to the fire hall that they got another call – this time a propane explosion. The equipment they left behind at the rescue scene wasn’t picked up until the next day. The rescue took place in mid-morning. Matero estimates the operation lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. “But it felt like it took all day,” he said. “We didn’t get any rest until about ten that evening. It was scary. I almost lost a guy. I had nightmares for two nights.”
While NHFC was conducting its rescue operation, their counterparts from the CSFC were in a similar situation just downstream at another house. Matt Steltz, a 12-year veteran of the CSFC and a social studies teacher at Beacon High School, was the incident commander at the second rescue. Three adult women and one child were stranded in their house, surrounded by the fast moving Clove Creek. When the call first came in Steltz hesitated to answer it. “I felt incredibly uncomfortable leaving the village unprotected,” he said. It was a mutual aid call outside the CSFCs district. “We do mutual aid calls all the time – but not when all hell’s breaking loose. We had our own problems at the river. We refused pump-out calls to focus on life threatening situations.” When he heard the word “yes” when he asked the dispatcher if the situation on Route 301 was life-threatening, “We took the call.”
Steltz and the other firefighters arrived to find a scene that may have been even riskier than what Matero had faced. “There was propane everywhere. The whole area was filled with propane – it was bubbling up out of the water,” Steltz said. He considered having the four people wait it out in the house until water levels receded. “But everyone assured me that if the dam [at Glynwood] went – the house would be gone.”
“I wasn’t comfortable telling our guys to go into that water but they didn’t hesitate,” he said. Some of the firefighters were able to fight their way across the fast-moving water. “They were being hit by logs,” he said. Eventually they were able to secure a rope to a tree followed by an additional safety line. “We made a makeshift harness and put them in it.” All four were rescued using the harness and ropes. “I was so concerned for the safety of our guys, they were waist deep in water,” Steltz said. “We didn’t have fast-water training. We train in the river in cold-water rescue suits. We probably need to improve [training] but that was a first in 12 years. The volume of water was amazing. It really was life-threatening.”
“It was one of the better calls the guys have done in a while. We were lucky it was a weekend – we had a big turnout [of firefighters]. They performed so well under such a stressful situation. They were sure the dam was going to go – and my guys were in the water.” Immediately after the rescue CSFC got another call. They dropped their rescue equipment and left. “We were almost better off. We didn’t have time to think.” The call, to a “structural fire” and “collapsed building” turned out not to be serious. Just another day in the life of a jewelry store owner and a social studies teacher.
Photos by M. Turton