NJSPBA members brave Hurricane Ida’s wrath to perform heroic rescues across the state
Hopewell Local 342 member Robert Voorhees held on to a tree for dear life, ankle over ankle, as a koala would.
Voorhees, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, tried to rescue Local 342 State Delegate Jeff Hoffman and Officer Michael Makwinski, who were also clinging to trees. After getting caught in the devastation resulting from Hurricane Ida’s torrential downpour, which pummeled New Jersey on Sept. 1, they battled for survival.
“That water had to be 10 to 15 feet deep,” Voorhees recalled. “I pulled up as high as I could. I got sucked into a vortex. There were trees and everything going down this crazy hole.”
The members exhausted every ounce of their strength to hold tight for more than two hours before being rescued. They never imagined that the sudden rainfall would become so catastrophic. Actually, no one predicted that never-before-flooded areas would see such destruction.
“I couldn’t get out of the water,” Voorhees expressed. “I couldn’t touch the ground. It was washing over my face.”
Hurricane Ida, which killed at least 25 people in New Jersey, was severe enough that satellites were able to show the damage. What the satellites didn’t capture was NJSPBA members across the state who risked their lives, some of whom worked for several days straight, to keep the storm from wreaking even further havoc. Members trudged through great depths of responses to aid residents in the life-threatening and record-breaking floods.
Braving the storm
Flooding is not uncommon in Manville, which is surrounded by streams. But the Hurricane Ida flood was by far the worst Local 236 State Delegate John Granahan has seen in 32 years on the job. When Ida hit with 10 inches of rain in three hours, the Raritan River and Millstone River overflowed in the middle of the night, engulfing areas that had never before been under water.
“This was my sixth major flood, and we pretty much go on autopilot because we’ve done it so often,” Granahan mentioned. “But it was the worst by at least four or five feet. There was two to three feet of water in some roadways where there’s no water around.”
Manville PD anticipated that some parts of the town would be cut off from others, which meant there would be no way in and no way out. All days off were canceled, and officers scattered to assigned areas where heavy flooding was predicted.
Granahan, who worked the day shift, arrived with a fully loaded emergency preparedness backpack. He ended up stranded in his section for 24 hours.
Residents were trapped in their cars in the middle of the road. At one point, Granahan witnessed a car sinking under water.
“It’s scary,” Granahan relayed. “You’re literally watching the water rise. Some people were just stranded, because the boats couldn’t even get to where they were at.”
With the help of the fire department, officers shuttled stranded victims to the Thomas J. Kavanaugh VFW Post 2290. Many residents had to trash pieces of their homes and their furniture, creating mountains of debris throughout town.
“It looked like a war zone,” Granahan observed.
Officers worked around the clock for several days, only heading back to headquarters for a quick rest or meal. For those who didn’t pack a change of clothes like Granahan did, the Walmart Supercenter in Manville provided clothes and necessities free of charge.
Like members of Local 236, Hoboken Local 2 and East Rutherford Local 275, South Bound Brook Local 148 members also performed water rescues in the wake of Ida’s reign. The town is surrounded by the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the Raritan River and has experienced major flooding in the past.
South Bound Brook PD has just 13 officers, but Local 148 President Rashun Davidson and member Douglas LaGrua are trained in swift water rescue. The training helped save 40 to 50 victims stranded in apartment complexes, houses and cars.
“I went from house to house with other officers,” Davidson noted. “We pulled people out of water and transported people out of their homes to safe areas.”
The department also acquired a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle through the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) Program in 2017, which would prove to be the saving grace for departments throughout Somerset County. Davidson remained in town, while LaGrua suited up with Officer Frederick Fittin driving the MRAP to assist Somerville Local 147 members and Bridgewater Township Local 174 members from the Finderne Police Department to rescue flood victims.
Local 147 members Adam Fulmore and Nicole DeBiase arrived at Somerville PD at 7 p.m. for their shift. Following 45 minutes of extreme rainfall, a call came in about a partial building collapse.
“All hell broke loose,” DeBiase confirmed. “It was pouring extremely hard. You couldn’t even see in front of you.”
The collapse did not result in any injuries or casualties, but the first call set off a chain of pleas for help for the next 16 hours, two of which required aid from South Bound Brook members.
Six passengers were stranded on the roof of a van on the verge of being washed away on Mercer Street. Fast-flowing currents made it nearly impossible for Somerville officers to assist — until South Bound Brook’s 24-ton MRAP vehicle arrived on scene. LaGrua pulled all six victims off the roof of the van and into the back of the MRAP.
“One [of the victims] gave us a handshake and said, ‘Thank you for saving our lives,’” LaGrua revealed. “It was one of the most touching moments of my career.”
Meanwhile, DeBiase and Fulmore responded to South Side Avenue, where an abandoned Jeep floated in five feet of water.
“This guy was in the wood line,” DeBiase explained. “I guess he got out of that car and the water washed him. He was clinging to a tree. We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him.”
DeBiase and Fulmore shined their flashlights, trying to get to the victim, who yelled out in the dark as they got closer. They couldn’t go any farther without getting swept away themselves. Again, they reached out to South Bound Brook for help.
Initially, LaGrua doubted they could save the victim. Still, he knew that all his training had led to this moment. They fastened a rope around the MRAP and a pulley on a telephone pole to send a rescue raft with firefighters down to the victim.
“The current was too strong to pull the rope up by hand,” LaGrua clarified. “When they got the [victim], we used the truck to pull forward and pull them back to us.”
The plan worked. LaGrua said that without the MRAP, the victim undoubtedly would have died in the flood.
“It proved to be a vital resource during the remnants of Hurricane Ida,” LaGrua declared. “The MRAP’s impressive performance that evening has turned skeptics into proponents of the program.”
The success story didn’t end there. In another heroic response, Local 148 members arrived at the STS Tire & Auto Center corporate office located behind the Somerset Patriots baseball stadium in Bridgewater Township. More than 25 workers were trapped inside the building.
“The river came up [so high] that the building looked like the ocean,” LaGrua recalled. “We drove through [almost] half a mile of water that was more than six feet tall to get back there.”
When DeBiase returned to work the next day, she described Somerville the same way Granahan described Manville — a war zone. The excess water runoff and high tides flooded some streets for the first time ever, while buildings lost the entire first floor and even up to the second.
“You thought you were in the scene of a movie,” DeBiase remembered. “There were cars that were just abandoned in the middle of streets, trunks open, doors open.”
As Local 342 members performed rescues in Hopewell Township, they never expected to become victims themselves.
“Every road in Hopewell Township was under water,” Hoffman relayed. “People later told me that [in] 60 years in the township, they’d never seen a flood that bad.”
On his way to a call on Amwell Road, Voorhees floated in his car at one point. He arrived on scene with Makwinski to find 20 citizens trapped in cars at a three-way intersection.
“It was like an island,” Voorhees recalled. “We were trapped in this area completely surrounded by water.”
Voorhees and Makwinski took off their outer carry vests and radios. In just their uniform shirts, pants, boots and gun belts, they managed to save three victims. When Voorhees got a hold of his radio again, he learned that Hoffman had gone missing.
Hoffman was swept away in his car while responding to a call at Rambling Pines Day Camp. The car started to tip toward the driver’s side. After several attempts, he made it out of his car, only to be caught under water. Then a rapid shift threw him 30 yards into the woods. He grabbed the first tree he could get his hands on.
“I looked up and saw tree branches in V maybe four foot high,” Hoffman recalled. “I got into the tree and stayed there. It seemed like more than an hour. I had no knowledge if they knew or didn’t know where I was.”
Voorhees and Makwinski were closest to Hoffman. They knew they had to help but were trapped at the intersection. Then a PSEG truck pulled up.
“I commandeered it,” Voorhees mentioned. “I basically told him he needs to drive me up north. He didn’t question me.”
The truck almost made it to Hoffman’s last known location before having to stop. A wall of water that splashed over the top of the truck prevented them from getting farther. Kitchen tables and trees flew past him.
Then Voorhees, the only EMT officer on duty, heard a radio alert of shots fired and an officer down. It was Hoffman shooting rounds to signal his whereabouts. But Voorhees didn’t know that.
Voorhees decided to search on foot for Hoffman. The PSEG truck driver tried to stop him, but nothing was going to keep him from trying to save one of his own. Makwinski, who heard the shots fired call, left his car to search for Hoffman as well. Still a mile away, they heard a gunshot.
“I said, ‘This isn’t a cop getting shot,’” Voorhees described. “’It’s Jim shooting for help.’ I went to this random truck with a guy in it. I’m taking my vest off and throwing everything except my gun belt in this front seat.”
They left the truck, neck deep in water, five feet apart. Suddenly, the water sucked Makwinski under. Hoffman, shivering, caught sight of Makwinski riding the rapids.
“He probably got within 30 yards of me, and the rapids are pulling him down,” Hoffman remembered. “Then I see another flashlight and it’s Voorhees coming down the rapids. I’m screaming, ‘I’m over here! I’m in the woods!’”
Voorhees heard Hoffman before being sucked into the vortex. He stuck his hand out and grabbed onto the first branch he could find.
“The tiniest, thinnest branch in the entire world,” Voorhees clarified. “I’m sideways now, like in the whitewater rapids. I realize I’m not dying yet.”
Somehow, the branch didn’t break and helped Voorhees pull himself up. Now he had eyes on Hoffman, but not Makwinski. The water had carried him more than 30 yards away from them.
“I swear [Makwinski] was screaming for help at the top of his lungs,” Voorhees revealed. “That made me sick to my stomach the entire time. We thought he was drowning, but apparently he was screaming, ‘Can you hear me?’”
Hoffman and Voorhees heard Makwinski scream for 20 minutes. They didn’t hear him for the rest of the night. Makwinski was able to hear them, but not see them, from the tree he found to cling on to after breaching the water. He held on for another two to three hours.
“It was legitimately sink or swim,” Makwinski explained. “I was like, ‘This is probably the end of my life.’”
Fearing the worst and thinking Makwinski was crying for help, Voorhees decided to try finding him. He let go of his tree and got sucked into another whirlwind of water, hitting his head and knee.
“I had no idea where I was,” Voorhees recalled. “I’m on this tree and I’m holding on for my life. I felt [horrible] because I couldn’t get to Makwinski.”
At this point, the officers knew that help was coming but had no choice but to wait. Two hours went by. They kept waiting.
When the water started to recede, Voorhees made it to Hoffman, whose knee was stuck in the V of the tree. He freed Hoffman, and the two held on to the same tree until Rusling Hose Fire Co No. 13 responders from Hamilton arrived.
Voorhees threw Hoffman into the fire company rescue boat before jumping in himself. They immediately urged rescuers to find Makwinski.
“They were like, ‘When was the last time you heard from him?’” Voorhees relayed. “I said, ‘It’s probably been two hours,’ and they all looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we take you two back and then we’ll go look for him?’ [We thought] he was dead.”
Makwinski held on to his tree long enough for the rescue team to find him. The first thing he did was call his fiancée, father and brother Chris, a Manalapan Township officer, to alert them to his safety.
Voorhees called his father, a retired member of Hamilton Township Local 66 who works at the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Hoffman alerted his family, including his daughters Nancy, a Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers Local 314 member, and Erica, an Atlantic Highlands Local 242 member.
The members were given free time off after the potentially fatal incident.
“We all went through a life-changing experience,” Makwinski expressed. “We were given time off to decompress, focus on ourselves and make sure our mental game was OK to be at work.”
After taking time to heal, the members headed back to the Hamilton fire station with food and beverages to thank the firefighters who saved their lives in the fatal floods.
“I got a new lease on life,” Voorhees proclaimed. “This is an ‘I’m just happy to be alive’ story. Every day is a gift.”