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After 13 years of working as a volunteer fire fighter, Eastampton’s Matt Geiger knows how to prepare for natural disasters – and how to help. That’s why he spent 36 hours at the town’s firehouse when Hurricane Sandy hit, and it’s why he was on the road early the next morning heading to Ocean County with a boat in tow, ready to rescue.

“I had 16 guys stationed at the firehouse dealing with the in-town calls during the storm. We ran about 20 calls. Most were for downed trees and wires. Then I got a call at 3 am asking us if we could take our boat to Ocean County to assist with rescue and recovery,” says Geiger, who is department chief of the Eastampton Fire-Rescue Department – a volunteer position. “We have a marine unit at our firehouse because Eastampton Township has a lake, and the Rancocas Creek runs through our town.”

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Members of the Eastampton Fire-Rescue Department use heavy equipment to navigate floodwaters during rescue attempts at the Shore

Geiger and two other firefighters headed down to the shore where they met a police officer who escorted them during all of their rescue efforts. “There were no roads,” he says, “so we needed someone who knew the area.”

“When we got there, we found total devastation,” says Geiger, who was given time off from his day job as a well driller to help with the rescue efforts. “We headed out with the boat. I would hop out, walk through water up to my chest and go door-to-door looking for anyone who had decided to weather the storm. When we found someone, we would pull the boat right up to the door. We could fit seven people in the boat. The boat would shuttle them back to shelter, and I would keep knocking on doors. In an eight-hour shift, we pulled out 40 people and about 15 pets.”

Although everyone Geiger rescued had ignored the evacuation order, he says that doesn’t enter his mind. “We don’t judge people. We help them out in their time of need, no matter what their reasons for staying were. The people we brought out were in shock. Their first floors were under water. Anyone who decided to stick it out never thought it would be that bad, and now they wanted to get out.”

Geiger has story after story of those he rescued and the endless number of outlandish sights – like boats piled in people’s front yards and docks sitting in their living rooms. “I’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude,” he says. “You see pictures online but until you see it in person – it’s unreal. This was the biggest, most devastating thing I’ve ever seen.

“We were going down this one road, and we heard a call for help. A lady and her husband were stranded in their house, and they were standing on their porch. A piece of debris had knocked off something in the foundation of their house, and that had knocked over the gas meter. Their house was filling with natural gas. We could smell the gas as soon as we walked up to the house. The woman said she’d been calling for 24 hours, but no one could get to her. We secured the natural gas line first, and then we got them out. We just happened to be riding by, and we were able to save her and her house. I’ll never forget her; she called us her angels.”

The fire rescuers found gas leaks were a common danger in the area. “We evacuated about six people from one block where natural gas was being blown down the street. It sounded like a freight train,” Geiger says. “People don’t realize that one spark could blow up the whole block.”

Since the hurricane, Geiger has been working seven days a week: Monday through Friday at his day job, and then on weekends at the Shore helping a friend who does basement restoration. In between, he’s answering calls with the fire company.

Despite the busy schedule, Geiger says he’s doing what he loves. “It’s worth every ache and pain to make a difference in the life of someone who just lost everything. I wouldn’t trade volunteering for anything – it does take an understanding wife, though.”

The young father of a 3-year-old son says his experience with Hurricane Sandy has impacted him in ways that are different from other emergencies he’s handled.

“In our line of work, we try not to become emotionally attached, but when you see utter destruction it makes you realize how quickly life can change. You can have everything and then have absolutely nothing in a heartbeat. It shows that you should come home every night and hug your kids, and say I love you to the ones you love.”

Geiger also believes the hurricane has another lesson: “Whether the news hypes it up or not, you should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Heed the warnings. When everyone is telling you to get out, get out. And then come back.”

December 2012
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