Dave Rispoli says he's no hero, just a good neighbor. But Jeanne Johnson and her family think he's much more than that.
Their touching story has reached national news – an appearance on CBS2 and ABC's Good Morning America last week – and flooded the Johnsons with emails from as far away as California, Iowa, Alaska and even Dubai. Gripped by the tale, hundreds have inquired about two very lucky basset hounds.
During the peak of Hurricane Sandy – with 50 mph winds flooring trees as far as the eye could see – Mango and Finn sought shelter in the frigid cold. Perilously close to falling into the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook, Mango and Finn waited five long hours in frigid temperatures before Rispoli heard their howl.
"It was just a miracle he happened to be not sleeping well that night," Jeff Johnson said. "The dogs were right by the [brook]. I'm sure if he didn't find them they could have fallen into the brook. They don't swim."
Rispoli deflects any talk of heroism though Jeanne says his acts were extraordinarily "courageous."
"What do you do to repay a man like that?" Johnson said on Good Morning America. "Half of me was thinking he was crazy, the other half was thinking, what a hero. What a brave man."
The people saving lives down the shore and in Moonachie are heroes, Rispoli said. But him? He doesn't think so.
"I just picture if they were mine," Rispoli said. "Even if I didn't know her, she's a neighbor. She lives a couple hundred yards away from me. I just did something for a neighbor, that was all. But hero? I don't feel like a hero."
It all started Monday night when a panicked Jeanne Johnson told Patch she was letting her dogs out. She quickly discovered they had escaped through a damaged fence.
Jeanne and a Mastin Place neighbor searched but the conditions outside were treacherous. Trees were snapping, winds were extreme and the rain had been pelting. They had to turn back. Her two children were distraught and feeling helpless and husband Jeff was stuck in Florida on business.
Meanwhile, Rispoli, a 6th grade science teacher at Hasbrouck Heights, was up at around midnight checking Facebook to see which friends still had power. The Meadowbrook Ave resident saw an article published by Patch detailing Johnson's dogs going missing.
"My son, at bedtime, told my wife he had heard barking outside," Rispoli told Patch. The Rispolis have a beagle but it was not their dog barking, which prompted Karen Rispoli to wonder – are those the dogs we read about?
"I knew it was a hound right away," Dave recalled. "I ran out, grabbed my flashlight and headed to the community gardens. That's where the howling was coming from."
He scurried back toward the brige near Graydon Pool where he found the dogs, together.
He was unable to catch Finn but a cowering Mango showed little resistance. With a heavy Mango in his arms, he ran back to his Meadowbrook Ave. home. Knowing it would be nearly impossible to retrieve a terrified Finn, he found Jeanne Johnson sitting in her car, charging her phone.
A tree had just crashed onto the house and power lines littered the area around her.
Minutes later, a heartbroken Jeanne and her daughter were embracing Finn in the brush near The Stable.
"They were crying, holding the dog," Rispoli recalled. "Her daughter was so happy."
The Rispoli's good deeds were not yet over. Dave didn't hesitate to offer the family fuel for their gas generator the next morning. They saw the ABC Good Morning America special together from his home, which had power.
"We owe him big time," Jeff Johnson told Patch a few days later. "We plan on taking him out to a nice dinner when it's all said and done. That's only going to be only the beginning. He's definitely one of Ridgewood's finest...he and his wife are just great people."
Rispoli said what he did is just part of the Ridgewood ethos.
"With all the tragedies we have had in the last year or two, the town just comes together," he said. "It's just another aspect of what makes Ridgewood so special."