How local volunteer firefighters saved two familiesBy 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.
Jaymark Jewelry owner Jim Matero led one rescue during tropical storm Irene
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.”
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