Here are the 45 Somerset County first responders honored for heroism during Ida

2022-07-23 03:20:23 By : Ms. Grace He

It was a night no one in Somerset County will ever forget.

On Sept. 1 Hurricane Ida walloped Somerset County with record-breaking rains, resulting in unprecedented flooding, property damage and lost lives.

But it could have been worse. Thanks to the courage and heroism of first responders who responded by car, truck, boat, helicopter, high water rescue vehicle and swimming in debris-filled water, countless lives were saved.

They were, as one of the rescued people said, "angels."

Green Brook volunteer firefighters rescued more than a dozen drivers in flood waters along Route 22.

Ten New Jersey State Police troopers used two helicopters to rescue people throughout the county.

A Hillsborough police officer helped a Montgomery police officer rescue his wife trapped on the roof of her submerged vehicle.

Members of a county rescue and dive team maneuvered around the county's blocked and water swollen roadways to rescue 70 people and 16 pets. 

On Wednesday The 200 Club of Somerset County honored many of the emergency personnel who responded Sept. 1, 2021 to the disaster.

"The hurricane brought unparalleled flooding and destruction to our area. We are honoring all who, in spite of extremely hazardous conditions, participated in the rescue operations. Without these men and women, there undoubtedly would have been a greater loss of life," said Jason Dameo, 200 Club of Somerset County president, in the program message.

Valor awards were presented to 45 emergency responders during a ceremony at The Palace at Somerset Park in Franklin. Radio talk show host Bill Spadea was the guest speaker. 

Former Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson said the response to Hurricane Ida was a collaborative effort among law enforcement, first responders, firefighters and 911 dispatchers, who sometimes get overlooked.

"There were thousands upon thousands of calls that came in of people seeking help. The water levels in some instances were up to the second floor, you're talking 20 feet of water. It was a really good effort on all of the members law enforcement, first responders and 911 dispatch working together and stepping up in a time when yes it's their job, I get that, but this was a really scary night," said Robertson.

"Law enforcement and first responders — every day they do heroic things that often go unnoticed, but then there are moments like this when they are probably scared themselves but their job and duty is to protect and help others and they step up quick frankly when everyone else is running away," said Robertson who praised the 200 Club of Somerset County for recognizing the good work law enforcement does. 

• Green Brook Fire Chief Geno Panella, Assistant Chief Rick Connolly, Captains Bob Smiegocki and Marc Gottlick and Firefighters Rob Beattie Jr., Patrick Esmerado, Ethan Gottlick, Chris Hess Jr, Huma McGhee, Julio Montes and Jerry Putruele were honored for their response to a structure fire during the hurricane.

During the flooding a structure fire was reported on Washington Avenue. While fighting the fire with a line stretched though waist-deep fast-moving flood waters, additional crews rescued the occupants of the home. All of this took place after firefighters had rescued drivers and occupants from more than 14 vehicles stuck on Route 22 between Warrenville Road and Cramer Avenue where flood waters had rolled over the center divider. Firefighters also had to secure and abandon their firehouse on Greenbrook Road when it started to take on water, and continued to answer calls for assistance.

• Hillsborough Police Officer Richard H. Tichenor III, who was on patrol during the height of the storm, was honored for his response to Mountainview Road where vehicles were submerged with people trapped inside. When he arrived he spotted Kristen Sikorski trapped on the roof of her vehicle with water quickly rising.

Sikorski had alerted her husband Joseph Samec, an off-duty Montgomery Township police officer, about being stranded and he tried to rescue her. Tichenor started a water rescue by fastening a rope to himself creating an anchor for Samec to swim out to his wife. Tichenor was in neck-deep water which allowed Samec to safely reach his wife and then Tichenor then pulled them both out of rising water to safety.

Samec also was awarded a valor award for his rescue efforts.

On Wednesday Tichenor recalled getting a report of multiple people in the water by the Iron Peak sports complex off Mountainview Road.

He said he could see multiple people on top of their cars in the water and in the distance, he saw Sikorski, a physician coming home from work with her daughter's birthday cake in the car, teetering up against a tree all the way down to creek. He knew she was in the most danger.

As he was about to go into the water, Samec came up behind him and told him his wife was in the water. Tichenor said at first he explained to Samec there were a lot of people in the water but he was most concerned about the lady on top of a black car.

Samec told him that was his wife.

"We better hurry up and go then," Tichenor said he told Samec, adding he then grabbed a rope and went down toward the edge where the cold water was up to Tichenor's neck. Samec jumped in while Tichenor stretched the rope as far as he could for Samec to grab his wife and Tichenor kept pulling until they were both up safely out of the water. 

Sikorski remembers hearing her husband say "can you lose the handbag" but she quipped she had thought about taking the cake too. 

"We had angels that night," Sikorski said about her husband and Tichenor, adding both her handbag and her outfit survived unscathed.

She wrote a letter to the Hillsborough and Montgomery police departments thanking them for her rescue, and the other rescues that night without regard for their own safety.

"That's why it needs to be celebrated," Sikorski said. "It's just unbelievable."

• Hillsborough Assistant Fire Chief Michael Guzy (Station 36) and Firefighters Ryan Crater (Station 37), John Novak (Station 36), Vincent Patti (Station 37) and Thomas Shaffer (Station 37) were honored with valor awards for their work nearly two months before Hurricane Ida, on July 17, 2021 when Hillsborough was hit with a quick storm that dropped more than four inches of rain in a few hours. 

The fire department's high-water rescue truck was dispatched to Amwell Road and Blackpoint Road where a vehicle was stuck in the fast moving flood waters from the Neshanic River with five victims, including some children, on the roof of the car.

Novak, Guzy, Crater, Shaffer and Patti used a foldable ladder stretched from the truck to the hood of the car and Crater climbed across to the victims and helped them across the ladder to the truck, which was having mechanical issues causing it to lose power and lights.

After those five victims were safely rescued, nine more victims from three other vehicles also were rescued.

• New Jersey State Police Major Brenton Warne, commanding officer of special operations sections, said he's humbled and honored to work with the troopers involved in the Hurricane Ida helicopter rescue efforts. He said the troopers are are trained in hoist operations along with pilots. 

"If you give these guys and girls a clear mission and the tools they need to get a job done, they come through for you," Warne said Wednesday before the 200 Club ceremony.

He said in Somerset County state troopers were mostly involved in rescuing people where conditions were likely to deteriorate and become even more life-threatening. 

• New Jersey State Police Sgt. First Class Daniel Nelson, the pilot in command;  Staff Sgt. Joseph Vinci, handling hoist; Sgt. Todd Ludwick, the second in command, and Trooper I Nicholas Bruno and Trooper II Christopher Finley received valor awards for their roles in the Helicopter Rescue/Hoist Operation Team during the storm.

On Sept. 2, 2021 Bruno and Finley were contacted to assist the Aviation Bureau with rescue attempts in flooded areas.

During the first hoist operation in Somerville, Finley was lowered into the back of a pickup truck where two people were stranded on a flooded road but they refused to be airlifted.

Finley was then lowered onto the roof of the STS warehouse on East Main Street in Bridgewater next to the Commerce Bank Ballpark where a person was stranded. A rescue basket was used by Vinci and Bruno to hoist the person onto the helicopter and then to police at the stadium.

• New Jersey State Police Trooper II Paul Cierva and Trooper I's Brian Harper, Ryan Molchan, Marc Nietubyc and Roy Rohel received valor awards for their work Sept. 2, 2021 with Helicopter 7 working out of Somerset Airport in Bedminster with Harper and Cierva as pilots and Molchan as hoist operator rescuing 16 people.

The team of troopers airlifted four people stranded at the Wendy's on Easton Avenue in Franklin, which was surrounded by rising waters pulling toward the Raritan River.

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They picked up two men stranded at the Central Jersey Airport in Manville and a mother with two small children at the cemetery next to the airport.

Rohel was lowered from the helicopter to walk six people through flood waters on Route 206 in Somerville to a rescue boat safety crew.

He rescued a 78-year-old man whose car was being swept away after trying to cross flooded railroad tracks in Bound Brook.

• North Branch Volunteer Fire Company Lt. Keith Schroeder, and Firefighters Ed Chabak Jr and Andrew Mallon, all swift water rescue technicians under age 25, received valor awards for their efforts in rescuing four people on Somerset Corporate Boulevard in Bridgewater clinging onto vehicles and trees as flood waters tried to sweep them away. Two of three people who had already been swept away by the current died. During the rescue one of the firefighters lost his footing and went down, but the team pulled him back above the surface to continue the rescue.

• Somerset County Dive/Rescue Team Commander Trevor Oldenburg, Lt. William Federico, Divers David Delesky, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Matthew Murphy Robert Pikulin and William Seiple received valor awards for their efforts in rescuing 70 people, including an infant and 16 pets during the storm.

Gonzalez assisted Middlesex Borough Fire Rescue with their boat in rescuing stranded civilians.

The fire rescue group also loaned Gonzalez safety equipment to assist with recoveries at Tea Street and West 2nd Street in Bound Brook, including an elderly man in the water.

The team responded to Blair House Luxury Garden Apartments on East Union Avenue in Bound Brook where a flat-bottom boat was used to rescue 30 adults and children and about 12 pets from the water.

The team also responded to rescue four people from the Somerset Surgical Center in Somerville at Route 206 and South Bridge Street in Bridgewater who were trapped by rising water from the Raritan River.

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The team then rescued four adults and an infant were rescued from a two story apartment building in the area of Holy Glen Road in Somerville.

Eight people were rescued from a pickup truck in the area of the Sarah Jane Restaurant on Route 206 in Somerville.

To reach the Lost Valley neighborhood in Manville, which had been cut off by flooding in all directions, Federico was able to get the Rescue One boat in the Millstone River on North River Street in Millstone and then navigate downstream to enter the Lost Valley area where a house exploded.

Drone operations used by Seiple and Murphy were used to locate 20 people and four dogs they rescued.     

• Somerset County Director of Communications Dave Frauenheim received a valor award for delivering emergency services to Somerset County residents during Hurricane Ida. Frauenheim was in communication and coordination with county boats, highway vehicles, helicopters, fire and EMS personnel.

Under his supervision and leadership the Somerset County Communications Center answered 5,621 emergency 911 calls along with 3,134 abandoned 911 calls between Sept. 1-3, 2021. The communications team generated 5,295 CAD incident files including 697 water rescues, 48 explosions, 244 fire alarms, 527 abandoned or disabled vehicles, 170 vehicles in water, and 129 motor vehicle crashes. A total of 19,342 inbound and outbound phone calls were handled by the 911 center over the three days.

• Raritan Borough Police Officer Nicholas DePiano received a valor award for rescuing a woman trapped on the roof of her vehicle who was not able to swim. DePiano was working the night shift when he responded to First Avenue where vehicles were submerged in flood waters. DePiano and Officer Robert Jones swam out to a woman sitting on the roof of her car. The woman told police she could not swim. Another man at the scene went to his house to get a boogie board and gave it to DePiano who put the woman on the board and swam her to safety.

Shortly afterward Jones was struggling to swim in the water and DePiano swam to him with the board, got him on it and helped him swim toward a member of the Raritan Borough Fire Department who threw him a rope and pulled him to safety.

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• Somerville Deputy Fire Chief Michael Bigelow and Rescue Technician Nicholas Ricevuto received valor awards for their efforts rescuing a man who had waded through and was swept away in nearly five feet of fast moving water in the area of High and Culver streets in Somerville.

The technical rescue team heard a faint cry in the darkness but could not safely make entry from their location. They later saw a light in the distance from the man's cell phone as he clung to a small tree. Bigelow and Ricevuto fought to gain control of their boat which slammed into a tree before reaching the man and pulling him aboard. They fought to get the boat back upstream against the current to dry land where the man thanked God for sending them.

• South Bound Brook Police Chief Frederick Fittin, Firefighter Monica Carlton and Lt. Douglas LaGrua received a valor award for rescuing six people in Somerville clinging to the top of van in rising flood waters during the storm by using the borough  high-water vehicle. The vehicle also was used to assist a motorist swept downstream into a tree near Hamilton Street and Southside Avenue and to rescue 25 people trapped at the STS warehouse on East Main Street in Bridgewater.

Suzanne Russell is a breaking news reporter for covering crime, courts and other mayhem. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.