The streets of Sea Bright that once bustled with the sounds of beach life were silent Saturday as dozens of volunteers from Carbon County arrived in the New Jersey shore community.
Beautiful beach homes now lay in ruin, split in half and crumbling from the weight of waterlogged wood.
Sand dunes 30 feet high, rise at the edge of the beach, separating humans from water once again.
The lives of the families in Sea Bright have been uprooted; their belongings lost to Superstorm Sandy, a late-season hybrid hurricane that ravaged the East Coast two weeks go.
Hope seemed lost for this town of 1,500 permanent residents until this past weekend, when the group of good Samaritans brought a light to the depths of the darkness in the form of much needed supplies.
The group, "Carbon County, Pa., helps Sea Bright, N.J.," led by Kevin Steber, a Summit Hill volunteer firefighter and friend of Sea Bright's fire chief, Chad Murphy, arrived in the community at 9:47 a.m., Saturday, with a 53-foot trailer and U-Haul truck filled to the max with cleaning supplies, clothing, food, and everything a family would need to start anew. Everything was donated by residents and businesses of Carbon County and the surrounding areas.
In addition, KME/Kovatch Fire Apparatus, from which Sea Bright purchased a fire truck recently, sent a number of service vehicles and maintenance crews to service fire trucks in Sea Bright and the surrounding area, damaged by the storm.
Through these two entities, a glimmer of hope for the future was found in not only one community, but two.
Destruction as far as the eye could see
As the caravan gained entry to Sea Bright and made its slow journey through the sand-covered streets, Steber said that his first thought was, "We are in the middle of hell."
"You pulled in and it felt like the television series M*A*S*H, with the army tents, the army guys and cops everywhere," he noted. "There were people over in one area cooking, other guys offloading vehicles, then us pulling in with this truck and all these empty containers (that the mayor secured for supplies) waiting to be filled with the donations.
"There wasn't many supplies there at first, I would say the trailers they had were about 5 percent full and we then provided the other 95 percent in supplies. It was needed and we nailed it."
Choking back tears, Steber said that it was an amazing feeling when he was reunited with his friend Chad briefly. Murphy, who also serves as a Sea Bright police officer, was unable to stay long at the drop zone for he was working his shift at the Rumson Bridge entrance into town.
Steber's fiancee, Kira Michalik, another organizer, said that it felt like going into a war zone.
"Everything is boarded up, the windows are boarded up (on the businesses) and then they have big Xs on them," she said of the business district. "The red Xs mean they are done evaluating and searched to make sure there was no life lost."
After meeting up with Murphy's girlfriend, Maddy Boersig, at Long Branch Department of Public Works, Michalik chose to ride with her into the devastated town. Michalik credits Boersig for helping the group gain entry through the National Guards posted at the entrance into the town.
During the drive, Boersig explained to Michalik that what she was seeing was nothing compared to what happened during the hurricane.
"They had been cleaning for two weeks and what we saw was still a disaster," she said. "It was devastating."
She added that the group learned that during the height of the storm, waves were reaching 14 feet high, and were literally covering the town's fire company, which is located right off the beach.
Franklin Klock, another organizer, said that what they saw was unlike anything he could have ever imagined.
"You can look at a 1,000 pictures on the Internet, and the aerial views of buildings on their sides, but when you roll in, it's like nothing you could have ever thought possible," he said. "The first thing that caught me was you can see the destructive path get greater and greater and greater as we got into town. First it was piles of sticks; then piles of trees; then piles of furniture on the street; then piles of house."
Of the sand dunes, Franklin said they were overwhelming because all of the sand they saw was originally on the streets of Sea Bright.
"When we were standing behind the fire company there was a volunteer there and I said to him 'I'm looking straight out at ground level at a 30-foot mountain of sand, what would I normally see?' He responded 'You would see the ocean because it's flat. As a matter of fact, it goes down to the beach from where we are.'"
Steber equated the large piles to a two-story home.
"It was like standing on the roof of your house," he said, adding that after climbing the dune, all they saw was a now-peaceful ocean and destruction along the coast.
One building that Steber found particularly interesting in the middle of all the destruction was Sea Bright's fire house.
The building itself reminded Steber of Diligence Fire Company No. 1's former fire house, which was also constructed using cinder blocks. Sea Bright's fire house still stands, like a diamond in the rough, looking as if it had not been touched by Mother Nature's fury, even though it had been buried under five feet of sand.
Steber said he was amazed by it because to an outsider, it appeared to be in good condition, but Murphy informed him that it too, like the rest of the businesses on that street, will have to be demolished due to structural cracks that compromised the integrity of the building.
Picking up the pieces
When the group arrived, no one ever imagined that this trip would change their lives forever.
But in a matter of hours, lasting bonds were created; friends were made; and a number of instances humbled the men and women who traveled from Carbon County.
Klock and his wife, Michele, shared a number of stories about their experiences with the people of Sea Bright.
"The people were so cordial and so polite and no one felt like they were owed anything," Franklin said. "They weren't rushing, they weren't fighting for things."
He added that he helped a woman who was looking for gloves and her thoughtfulness amazed him.
"I picked up a three pack of gloves and handed them to her and she looked at them for a moment and said 'I only need one pair. Somebody else could use these others.' I thought 'You have nothing and you're thinking about the person that's going to come behind you and need help.' It really struck me. That's the kind of people they were. Appreciative of the help. That's what made this worthwhile."
Michele said that the whole thing really sank in for her when she and Franklin helped a woman carry cleaning supplies back to her home.
"When you got off the main drive and started to see the average homes and all the residents' belongings just piled in the streets and sand everywhere and you're carrying a bucket and Clorox, you think 'how is this going to be enough?' she said.
As her and Franklin followed the woman back to her storm-damaged home, the reality sank in that this really happened.
"When we saw what it was really like (in the residential area), we all walked out of there like someone walking out of a funeral," Franklin said. "We came out of there thinking we can't touch this. We were so humbled by the whole thing. Our efforts were massive and minute at the same time. It mattered but it wasn't going to change anything. It wasn't going to rebuild their lives."
Onward to Oceanport
As the group unloaded the supplies from the truck, Steber learned that they would have to find another location for all the clothing that was donated.
Immediately, Boersig sprang into action, calling surrounding communities to see who would be able to use the dozens of boxes of clothes still left on the rig.
Franklin explained that when he learned that the clothing was not needed at Sea Bright, his heart sank a little.
After a short time, a location had been found in the city of Oceanport, and the volunteers continued on their journey.
Steber explained that Oceanport Fire Company is being used as a warming station and needed the clothing for its residents.
He said that as they unloaded the clothes, Fire Chief Ken Carroll arrived and tearfully thanked Steber and the crew for their donations.
"He said 'we more than need this,'" Steber recalled. "'We have people coming here and have no clothing for them.'
"Hearing that made this the icing on the cake. We had the right stuff for the right spot," Steber continued.
"When we were trying to figure out where to put the clothes, we were thinking this is a mistake, and then this mistake was exactly what Oceanport needed," Franklin added. "It was a solution. We helped two towns that night."
Another helping hand
While the group of volunteers traveled to Sea Bright, and later Oceanport, KME/Kovatch Fire Apparatus crews were stationed at Long Branch Department of Public Works just five minutes away, servicing over 20 fire apparatus that needed servicing.
Steber said that Kovatch became involved after John Kovatch III asked him if Sea Bright's new fire truck needed servicing because of the storm.
Steber contacted Murphy, who told him yes.
"Trucks have been in water, trucks have been in sand, we need service," Murphy told Steber via telephone.
John Kovatch III then asked John Kovatch IV to put a team together and make plans to travel to New Jersey and service whatever fire trucks Murphy could line up.
Steber noted that all parts were donated by Kovatch so it didn't cost any fire department a cent.
"They (each fire department) got a detailed report on each apparatus explaining what they (Kovatch's crew) found, what they did, if there was anything else that needed to be corrected, and the severity of the damage," he said, noting that John Kovatch IV and his crew completed all the servicing in less than 12 hours.
Darkness and fire threats
As darkness set in, many of the volunteers were beginning to make their treks back to Carbon County. Only three remained in Sea Bright Steber, Michalik and volunteer firefighter Daniel Yorke.
During that time, Steber had the opportunity to speak a little more with Murphy about the day's efforts and about the devastation they witnessed.
Murphy, who had no idea Steber was setting up the large donation prior to their arrival, said later via text message to Steber, "I still can't thank you enough for everything."
As the night went on, fire calls began picking up in the community for smoke and odor investigations from gas and electric restoration efforts earlier that day.
At one point, volunteers were needed to go out on a call and Steber and Yorke's service was requested.
Steber said serving with the volunteers was one of the highlights of the trip, which he will never forget.
He added that Summit Hill Fire Chief Shawn Hoben said he was proud of his commitment to his friend, to volunteering, and to his community.
Now that the volunteers have returned from Sea Bright, the efforts to help their new friends are continuing.
Steber said that he has created a Facebook page called "Carbon County, PA & Sea Bright NJ; Two Communities United."
The page will be used as a way to keep the lines of communication open between the residents of both communities and also to see how the rebuilding of the town is coming along.
Franklin, who is a naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Center in Summit Hill, also has plans for continued support of the town, but in another way.
With his background in wildlife and animals, he has already contacted the Monmouth County SPCA, which encompasses the communities around Sea Bright, to begin working with them on future support.
"Everyone wants to help now but in a month from now, they are expecting to run dangerously low on supplies for pets and wildlife," he said, adding that he has some resources here that were made during the initial mission and will utilize them to send supplies down for the animals.
In addition to Franklin and Steber's efforts to continue supporting Sea Bright, Lehighton Area Middle School will host a basket raffle in the near future to help the children; and Jim Thorpe Area School District is currently collecting school supplies for the area.
"A lot of people from our group are now off on their own and doing things to help New Jersey," Steber said. "It's going in the right direction.
"For me, I'll always be connected to Sea Bright because my buddy is there."