September 10, 2011
Virgil firefighters awestruck by Irene’s wrath
Group helps out in Schoharie, Greene counties in wake of tropical storm
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
A group of Virgil Fire Department members spoke about their trip to Greene and Schoharie counties to help victims of recent flooding. From left, Matt Kinney, Murray Kinney, John Tinker, John Traphagen, Dan Keenan and Alec Cole.
VIRGIL — Firefighters Dan Keenan and John Traphagen spent Labor Day weekend in Schoharie County helping other crews clean up the destruction left by Tropical Storm Irene.
But there were only a couple days of downtime when they came home.
The tropical storm’s wrath was fierce and when the state was pounded by heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee, Keenan and Traphagen were summoned back there Thursday to spend another three or four days.
Both said they were glad to do it.
Four other Virgil firefighters also returned this week from helping out where the hurricane hit in Greene County.
They spoke Wednesday about the experience. Several minutes later, two fellow firefighters answered a call to help deal with record-breaking floodwaters that battered Broome County.
Hurricane Irene struck along the East Coast in late August. Virgil firefighter John Tinker went to Prattsville, one of the hardest hit areas in Greene County.
It was “like a bomb went off,” he said.
Some of the work entailed pumping water out of basements, and clearing out mud and debris from roads and buildings. He spent three days working in 12-hour rotations, along with about 50 other fire and rescue crews there.
“It was pretty scary looking,” Tinker said. “There was a mobile home park that had nine or 10 trailers and there was 6 feet of water rushing through that leveled it and took everything a couple hundred yards.”
The scene was not much better in the Schoharie County town of North Blenheim.
“There was one trailer knocked off its foundation, a lady there in her early 70s who lived there lost her whole home,” firefighter Dan Keenan said. “After we emptied her house pretty much, she gave us all hugs and thanked us for doing it.”
Some houses needed hazardous contamination crews to clear up oil tank spills, Traphagen said. Flooding in basements ranged from 8 feet in some houses, to filled basements up to the first floor of a residence.
“It was pretty emotional for residents there, a lot of them lost everything they had and a lot of houses there are condemned,” Traphagen said. “When you’re walking through the houses, you realize how lucky you are to have what you have — and know everything these people have is all gone.”
Under the state’s emergency management system, officials assess information from areas damaged by natural disasters and relay whatever help and equipment is needed to other emergency agencies around the state.
Cortland County Fire Coordinator Bob Duell said 16 firefighters were sent to help last week and more could be sent in coming weeks. The plan for Cortland County firefighters was to be deployed there for at least three days. Volunteer firefighters had only three hours to get their affairs in order last week before heading out last Wednesday.
“We supplied a tanker for fire operations and did everything from traffic control and rehab — distributing snacks, drinks, cleanup kits,” Traphagen said.
Keenan took out his cell phone Wednesday and flipped through several pictures he took of the destruction in North Blenheim and marveled at the damage that water can do to houses.
Keenan recalled being most astonished by how people who lost their homes tried to think positive.
“The more you talked to them, the more they said, ‘It’s just stuff, just a house … we walked away with our lives,’” he said.
Tinker said it could take months, or years, before those hurricane-stricken areas get back on their feet.
Emergency responders from the city of Cortland and town of Cortlandville have also aided in Irene cleanup. More could be sent in the coming weeks, officials said.
“If we get called again, I’d be glad to go down,” Tinker said.
“It’s what we do,” Keenan added.
TLC Emergency Medical Services also sent a crew to the Binghamton area this week to assist.
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