Witnessing destruction is nothing new. They fight it professionally, after all. But even the hardened firefighters of the Ridgewood Fire Department were shocked at what they saw.
"You drive down the streets, you see the bay right through people's houses," recalled Firefighter Jason Jacoby. "They lost both walls. I mean, you can look straight directly through the living room and see the ocean."
At night, residents of Silverton in Toms River would throw together makeshift signs to keep the looters from taking the few items they had left. Fall asleep and the jewelry, cars, money and pictures you've worked years for could be gone.
"People were coming and robbing them clean," Jacoby said. Even a disabled fire truck wasn't off limits – it had been pillaged, stripped bare before a tow truck could arrive.
Few, if any, residents had power. Most lost their homes and were surviving on shelter food and assorted military meals. Boats were littered on people's lawns, on top of cars and into houses. Cold had set in and many were scrambling for winter coats and other items.
"People's lives just completely in shambles," Jacoby said in summation.
At the behest of the county's fire coordinator, Chief Jim Van Goor asked for volunteers. Five answered the call. Firefighters Matt Bombace, Jordan Zales, John Young, Matt Musicant and Jacoby left Ridgewood on Engine 33 for Silverton on Sunday morning, returning Monday night.
Self-sufficient throughout the two-day period, the Ridgewood crew performed fire duty, assisted in helping the Red Cross hand out supplies door-to-door, and collected and dispersed clothing donations at the crammed fire house.
Despite the indescribable destruction, many residents of the Shore community were thankful for their presence, as well as volunteers from River Edge, Fair Lawn and East Rutherford.
"Their spirits were very high, shockingly," Jacoby said. "They came up, said thank you, cried on your shoulders. They were good people. They were more thankful that we were there to help them than what happened to them."
It was an emotional moment for all the guys, Jacoby said. At one point, a six-year-old boy emerged from behind his demolished home as they were driving by for their task force detail.
He said, quite simply, 'Thank you.'
The men were taken aback, Jacoby said. "It didn't even phase him what happened to him."
The firefighters were pleased to do what they could to mitigate some of the misery experienced by residents, helping rebuild. Little by little, step by step.
"They had nothing, so whatever you brought to the table, brought down or helped [with], helped them out a lot," Jacoby said. "It was definitely an experience, an eerie, weird experience. You'd be sitting there and people would hug and thank you. It was different...it's hard to explain what it was like."