Two Ordinary Heroes: Me and My Dad in the Storm of 2010

chainsaws connecticut storm explosions fallen powerlines fallen trees firefighters heroism storm

This past week has been pretty hard on everyone in Southwestern Connecticut. My dad and I had a little adventure of our own, which I wanted to share, not so much because I want people to know as because I want to write it down somewhere. This blog has become my journal, so here it is.

Just a Regular Day in Connecticut

Around mid-afternoon last Saturday, our power went out. My mom had just pulled a chicken out of the oven, and was braising a boar loin, so we were pretty upset at the inconvenience, but weren't especially concerned. The weather was depressing but not horrific, so out of boredom, mom decided to pick up some stuff from the store. On a whim, my dad went with her. I decided to stay home and work on my computer until my battery ran out, at which point, I went upstairs to read, but with the thick clouds, it quickly became too dark to do much reading. So I settled in for a nap to wait out the power outage.

Around 3:00pm, I got a call on my cell phone from my mom letting me know that they had stopped at a downed power line to direct traffic around the nearly invisible obstacle. I wasn't particularly surprised because my dad does this sort of thing occasionally. They were waiting for the police and would be home with lots of tasty food soon. Back to my nap.

An hour later, my mom called again. At this point, I was getting pretty annoyed. She asked me to bring a jacket, hat, and gloves for my dad, who had been out in the rain and increasing wind with no sign of police help on its way, though they had called five times and been promised an officer soon. I guess nobody realized how bad things were getting at that point. I dawdled a bit, grabbing a quick snack, before heading out the door, finally telling myself that my dad was cold and wet and I should hurry on. Those minutes of procrastinating nearly cost me my life.

[caption id="attachment_467" align="alignright" width="225" caption="The transformer that fell seconds after I passed it. A sign that this would be no ordinary evening."][/caption]

Driving down the road, I had the radio on and was in high spirits. I was trying to drive quickly, out of guilt for my initial putzing at home, but got caught behind a slower car. As soon as he turned off, I sped up again, going a bit too fast. That probably is what saved me. Coming around a corner over a hill, I saw my dad's silver Prius on the side of the road and immediately caught sight of a blinding flash in my rearview mirror. I didn't bother to turn around, but as I stepped out of the car, my dad came running up to me, saying I made it just in time. A tree had fallen across the road, hitting a transformer which exploded seconds after I passed beneath it. The road where I had been was now blocked by a furiously burning fire. We weren't getting home that way.

The Plot Thickens

Every time a strong gust of wind blew through, we could hear trees cracking, so my dad decided to send my mom home and keep me to help out. At this point, we were mostly just turning people away, and a couple people came out of their houses nearby to help. Every now and then, we'd hear the whipping of a heavy powerline and hurry back to the far side of the road as it came down across from us. More trees were falling, though no more ended up blocking the road. The fact that they were suspended above us by powerlines wasn't much comfort though, and I eventually suggested we move the cars to a spot on the road that was clear of high trees.

By this time, it was beginning to get darker. We were doing our best to direct people to where they were going, but drivers began telling us that all the other routes were blocked or closed. We began to feel that we were trapped ourselves, and my dad began talking about walking home.

Soon, a tree service truck showed up. No idea where they were headed, but when we told them the road was blocked, they began turning around. In the time it took them to turn their truck around, a tree had fallen across the road they came on, suspended on wires. It was high enough that cars could get under it, but too low for the truck. So now they were stuck too. But they had a chainsaw, and the beginnings of a plan to escape took shape. They didn't want to cut through the tree blocking their path though because it was on wires (which we knew were dead by now, but they didn't want to take any chances).

A Connecticut Light and Power truck arrived as well, but all he did was inspect the downed transformer and tell us to stay away from the wires, despite the fact that they were probably dead. While he was there, he was called back for safety concerns. The volunteer firefighters who showed up weren't much help either. They mostly just hung out in their trucks and told us to stay away from the trees and wires. One car asked me if I was a volunteer firefighter. I said, no, but that I should be. Soon, they too left.

I was beginning to wonder why we were there. After all, it had gotten to the point that nobody needed telling to turn around. It was obvious, and impossible to get through. Nor was there much need to guard the 'nearly invisible' line my dad had originally stopped for; with all the trees now down, nobody was even getting that far. Soon, however, our presence became useful.

Stepping Up to the Occasion

A number of cars showed up that lived just past the obstruction. The roads had been blocked in such a way that they couldn't get to their homes any other way, so we decided to lead them through, since we had a flashlight and knew the way around. One girl was on the verge of tears as she asked me if she could leave her car and just walk. I said she could do what she wanted with her car, but realized she needed help, if only the presence of someone who seemed like he knew what he was doing. So I offered to walk her home. Her car was stuck in the mud, so we left it. Some others parked in an abandoned driveway, where I left my car, and we guided them past the downed wire and through someone's yard to avoid the transformer that was still smoldering. One of them asked me what I did. I said I blogged and coached at my gym, casually. She must have meant to find out if I was a police officer or a fireman because she was surprised at how mundane my 'jobs' were.

As we walked them home, we passed Long Close Rd, and realized that it formed a small loop around the transformer. We had heard that there was a tree down, blocking the road, but we also had a chainsaw back at the tree truck, which was still stuck. So instead of continuing on home as we'd planned, my dad and I headed back to get the tree guys out. I scouted Long Close with my car and confirmed that the tree wasn't on any lines. When we got back to the tree truck, there was a line of cars waiting, one of which was their supervisor, who okayed our plan. We explained to all the cars what we were going to do, including one old lady who pretty much wanted me to hold her hand through the process, asking me to watch her back up so she didn't scratch her car (jokingly to my dad, "talk about walking an old lady across the street"). About this time I discovered that my hands were so cold I couldn't grip with my thumbs, meaning turning my car key required two hands. We followed the tree guys, now leading a convoy of cars, and helped them cut through the massive tree blocking Long Close, and we were home free! Until we got to a bridge over the Merrit Parkway, which was completely blocked by several trees and cars that had tangled in fallen wires.

I should also mention that my car was out of gas, so we weren't sure we'd even manage to get home. We took a side road and made it to a main street that was clear, got gas, and drove home, where my mom had started a cozy fire and lit candles. I stripped off my clothes which were soaked all the way through four layers (I was only wearing two fleeces, since I hadn't expected to be in the rain so long) and warmed up with some cold, but cooked, boar and chicken.


In retrospect, our actions were probably extremely stupid and dangerous, but if it hadn't been for our presence, I doubt a number of people would have been able to get home, including the ladies we walked back, that old lady, and the tree guys. My dad's guarding of the first downed wire probably did prevent some accidents and save lives. I was a little surprised at how paralyzed people were, just sitting in their cars, unable to decide if they should go back or stick around. People kept asking me what they should do, and I would just reply with what they could do based on the situation. Eventually, I realized they wanted me to tell them what they ought to do, rather than just provide information. We weren't in any better position to make recommendations on what they should do than they were, and yet they were asking for our direction. All we could do was provide our best ideas, taking into consideration the risks involved. I guess just being willing to step up and take a lead is what makes the difference. We weren't trained or qualified really, but those who were, the volunteer firefighters, didn't have much to contribute anyway, simply because they didn't step up and take on the responsibility for telling people what to do.

The other thing I noticed, about my personal reaction, was a distinct mindset of acceptance. Sure I had been disturbed from a warm, cozy nap to stand out in the blowing rain for four hours in the dark wearing nothing but synthetic wool (which luckily can stay warm even when wet). Nevertheless, as soon as it became clear that someone needed to be out there to help with the traffic, I took on the job quietly. No internal dialog, no personal whining, no reluctance to move or act when necessary. I wasn't really thinking much actually, except for one rant about how the firefighters ought to be helping us out and another brief contemplation of how manly I felt :-). When we got home, my dad and I were cold, exhausted, and worn out, but we also had a powerful sense of accomplishment, knowing that we'd actually helped people make it home. We had sacrificed our own comfort, and risked our safety, by staying out there to make sure others could be comfortable that evening, so we knew how badly they wanted to get home. But we didn't go home until all the people who had incidentally fallen under our charge were on their way.

So, I guess I'm glad I lived up to my expectations of myself. There's not much else to be gained from that experience.

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