As a firefighter for nearly 20 years, and chief of the Gulf Park Estates Fire Department in Ocean Springs, Miss., David Peto knows what it is like to be hit by a disaster, and to wait for help that you pray is coming.
That, and the spirit of brotherhood among firefighters everywhere, will result in an old but serviceable fire engine coming to the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department directly from the Magnolia State.
“After Hurricane Katrina, we lost one station that had 11 feet of water in it,” Peto said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “We had another station with three feet of water. All the trucks were either lost or damaged ... Unfortunately, we know first-hand what they’re going through.”
And after a few phone calls and a vote of the Gulf States board of directors, a 1988 E-1 Hurricane pumper is headed to West Hamilton Beach, which lost six vehicles to flooding during Hurricane Sandy last week.
Mitch Udowitch, a longtime official with the WHBFD, said the truck will match a pumper that already has been donated by the Hooversville VFD from the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa.
“One of our captains posted our needs on Facebook,” Udowitch said Tuesday. “The folks in Mississippi reached out and told us they had a pumper. Their board voted last night.”
Udowitch and Richard Lohr, director of Emergency Services for Somerset County, Pa., said the Mack pumper from Pennsylvania has a place in United States history —it was one of the first units to respond to the wreck site of United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked by terrorists on 9/11.
The plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, Penn., when passengers on the flight, hearing of other airplane attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on cell phones, turned on the hijackers and attempted to regain control of the aircraft.
Eleven years later, when Hurricane Sandy hit, “We were sitting back here grateful that we had missed that storm,” Lohr said. “Then last Wednesday night, my satellite provider began running news stations in New York for two days, just so we could see what was going on.”
Lohr and others saw the devastation, and heard reports that several fire companies, including West Hamilton Beach, had lost everything. They immediately began to investigate how to get their surplus truck to a department in New York or New Jersey that would desperately need it.
First there was an email to Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann. Almost simultaneously a friend of a friend, Steve Reis, contacted Lohr.
“He’s a cardiologist in Pittsburgh now, but when he was going to school in New York he rode with West Hamilton Beach,” Lohr said.
Like Peto in Mississippi, Hooversville had lost almost all its gear and much of its equipment in 1996, when the nearby river flooded after a freak snowstorm and warming period.
“In saving all our trucks, we lost most of everything else,” he said. “And the creek hadn’t begun to fall yet when other departments were coming to us and asking what we needed and how they could help.”
By the time Udowitch arrived in Hooversville on Saturday, the department’s active members had filled the truck with food, bottled water, blankets and other necessities for South Queens.
He, like Peto, credited much of the effort to the bond among firefighters.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said.
Peto said the donation is a truck they themselves received from a fire department in Virginia in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005.
“We got help from California, Kansas, and even got a truck delivered from Alaska,” he said. The GSFD is also donating five air packs, and the two departments also are seeing what other surplus equipment they can send to Queens, and working with Udowitch on getting it here.
The Forest Hills VAC donated one of its ambulances plus equipment and medical supplies to help get emergency services back on track in South Queens.
The Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corps also loaned an ambulance to the Broad Channel Fire Department, to temporarily replace one of the two that were destroyed.