Sandy Responder Searching for Woman He Carried to Safety
It was one of the most dramatic images of a dramatic disaster.
On the morning after superstorm Sandy swept across North Jersey, The Record's Tariq Zehawi photographed a firefighter in a red protective suit carrying an elderly woman in a plastic rain hat through knee-high floodwaters in Little Ferry.
Neither the firefighter nor the woman was identified. Zehawi had no time for that as the water rose at the corner of Liberty Street and Eckel Road.
But the expressions on their faces in the photograph, which the paper published on its front page on Oct. 31, told us much about the universal pain and fear that day -- and hinted at the heartbreak that would mount in scores of communities in the weeks that followed.
The woman seemed to be crying, as many others did after seeing their homes flood. The firefighter, like many other first responders who left their own damaged homes to pick up the pieces of broken lives, seemed focused on helping one person at a time.
But what happened afterward?
Who was the firefighter in red?
Who was the elderly woman in the rain hat?
With many rescues -- from medical helicopters snatching wounded soldiers off a battlefield in Afghanistan to commuter ferry crews pulling stranded jetliner passengers to safety on the Hudson River -- there is no time to exchange phone numbers, email addresses and promises to keep in touch or send thank-you notes.
Often, the rescuer and the rescued disappear from each other's lives, despite the close bond they briefly share.
Such was the case with the firefighter and the elderly woman in Little Ferry on that watery day.
Members of the tightknit Little Ferry Fire Department said they had no idea who the firefighter in the red suit was. There was no roll call, no formal roster on that day.
But the firefighter was well known elsewhere in the state.
He turns out to be Sean Miick, a 43-year-old captain with North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue and a member of an elite state police rescue team known as Task Force One.
Miick joined the task force after spending time at Ground Zero in Manhattan in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
"Ground Zero was my inspiration," he said.
But his experience there took its toll. Like many first responders and construction workers who scrambled atop the rubble pile in search of the dead, Miick came down with a breathing deficiency after taking in so much toxic air.
"I have only 58 percent capacity in my lungs now," he said.
That hasn't stopped Miick from fighting fires in Hudson County or working with the state task force, for which he specializes in rescuing people from collapsed buildings and floods.
During Sandy, Miick's home in Lacey Township in Ocean County lost power and was slightly damaged by wind and water. His wife and two sons, 12 and 5, moved out. But Miick, who had worked the overnight shift at his firehouse in West New York, could not head home to help.
He headed for Little Ferry and later to the Jersey Shore. He was so busy helping storm survivors that he couldn't even telephone his wife for four days, instead sending her a Facebook message to let her know he was OK.
But now that his life has returned to what passes for normal in the unpredictable and sometimes tragic world of fighting fires in Hudson County, Miick said he harbors a Christmas wish of sorts.
"I'd like to find that lady," he said on a recent afternoon at the firehouse on Broadway in West New York, where he commands a fire-rescue crew.
But identifying the woman in the rain hat has turned out to be a frustrating task.
A variety of Little Ferry officials -- from the mayor and borough clerk to the police chief -- and various other local leaders in churches and seniors clubs said they had never seen her before. Knocking on doors along Eckel Road and on its side streets turned up no clues -- or even murky leads.
7 feet of water
Little Ferry Mayor Mauro Raguseo suggested that maybe the woman was from neighboring Moonachie. But checking with officials there resulted in the same dead ends. No one seemed to know the woman. No one even had a guess about how to identify her.
"We're calling her the mystery woman," said Little Ferry Borough Clerk Barbara Maldonado, who takes pride in knowing most of the borough's 11,000 residents.
On the morning of Oct. 30, Miick drove from the West New York firehouse to the Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, where police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians were gathering.
The night before had hardly been easy. As Sandy's winds and rain picked up, the firehouse radio crackled with emergency calls.
"I personally responded to three fires," Miick said.
Miick arrived in Teterboro around 7:30 a.m. He put on a special red rescue suit that is designed to protect him from chilly water and jumped into a car with state troopers.
The car headed for Little Ferry. Near the Moonachie border, at the corner of Liberty Street and Eckel Road, Miick got out.
Across Liberty Street, a Dunkin' Donuts shop was open -- and dry, thanks to its location on high ground. But Eckel Road was inundated -- with homes nearest to the Hackensack River swamped by up to 7 feet of water.
Miick waded into the rising waters across from the doughnut shop and began supervising his fellow first responders as they brought nearby residents to safety.
Then he noticed the woman in the plastic rain hat. She was sitting with another woman in a silver aluminum boat belonging to the Franklin Lakes Fire Department.
"I could see she was crying and was very scared," Miick said.
Miick waded over to the boat. When he reached the gunwale, he asked the woman to stand up.
"I told her I planned to lift her and carry her to dry ground," he remembers.
The woman rose. Miick picked her up as if he were carrying a bag of groceries. He wrapped his arms around her back. She threw hers around his neck.
Then Miick remembers a change in the woman's demeanor.
"She started laughing," he said. "She said, 'I haven't been carried like this by a man in 50 years.' "
It was a brief moment of spontaneous levity in a day when spirits were otherwise weighed down with anxiety and anger that would not begin to dissipate for weeks.
Miick chuckled as he carried the woman through knee-deep water for about 30 feet.
"I tried to do what I could to make her situation easier," he said.
After setting her down on dry ground, he turned back to fetch other victims. There was no time for goodbyes. He never had a chance to even ask the woman her name.
He wishes he had.
Every lifesaving rescue is distinctive, Miick said. But that morning in Little Ferry with the woman in the rain hat was difficult to forget. Even now, Miick can still hear the worry in her voice and see the fear in her eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks.
"She was definitely memorable," Miick said. "I just wish I knew her name."
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