No one at the Coast Guard Air Station in Atlantic City had any doubt the night of Oct. 29 that Sandy would be as close to a perfect storm as they were likely to see.
Mayday calls came in early and heavy, and at first light the next day, Lt. Andrew Zuckerman piloted his MH-65 Delta helicopter, with Lt. Skylar Swenson in the copilot seat, out of Brigantine and rotored north toward New York City.
“It was eerie,” said Swenson, 34. “Big waves coming in, high tide, destruction, and chaos. You know you’re going to be the first to see it all from the air, but you don’t know what it is you’re going to see.”
What the four-member crew saw, Swenson said, was “surreal,” a transformed landscape with water carving away the planet’s sandy skin with ferocity.
In Ocean County, “there was water everywhere on shore, and whole sides of houses were missing,” said Swenson, of Ocean City. “There were stairs that once led to the beach, but were now sticking up 30 feet in the air. Waves were coming in high. Cars were rolled on their sides. Boats were rolled on their sides. Vessels were on top of each other. Vessels were on the dock. It was maritime madness.”
A fire burned through one town, he said, blackening what looked to be dozens of homes. In Brick, fire burned in the wake of a gas explosion.
“This was mind-boggling,” Swenson said. “We’re not even in New York yet.”
And everywhere, the howling wind and slash of rain.
In Sandy Hook, Monmouth County, the crew passed over more homes knocked over and a 20-foot sand cliff, evidence of violent “hydraulic erosion.”
In New York, where the crew’s task was simply to “find anyone needing help and to provide assistance,” they had more than they could handle. Toward Breezy Point in Queens, fires raged. Water spread across what had been street and field. A tattered American flag whacked against a tall pole. Homes were blown apart.
Flying back over Staten Island, the rescue team spotted two men on one roof, an elderly couple on another. Low on fuel, the crew made the decision to hoist the couple and leave the men for another run or another crew.
“That’s one of the hard things about being a first-responder,” Swenson said, “having to make those choices.”
By the end of the day, the crew had made several refueling trips to Morristown, N.J., returning to hoist about seven people to safety, and alerting the New York City police to others trapped in homes or in formerly placid and dry yards. They also had to make more hard choices.
One woman, stranded in her flooding home, refused to leave a beloved standard poodle behind. Rescuers could not risk hoisting the dog.
“She had tears streaming down her face,” Swenson said, “and she said, ‘I’m not going.’ We had do say, ‘OK,’ and move to the next house.”
One person after another – a man from a burning house, his face and hands blackened from beating out smoldering embers; a mother with a 6-month-old baby – all found refuge in the helicopter until the MH-65 developed mechanical problems and had to return to base.
“That was the most disappointing and sad part of the day,” Swenson said. “We were on a roll and had to stop.”
Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @SPSalisbury.