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When flood waters from Hurricane Matthew began to rise Oct. 9 and a fire trapped someone inside a home, Virginia Beach Master Firefighter Alexander Wazlak and his crew responded like they would any other day.
They had no idea they were about to lose a fire truck. Among Virginia Beach first responders, they were not alone.
Two weeks after the storm, the city faces an estimated cost of $1.25 million to replace emergency vehicles lost to flood damage, including police cars, ambulances and a reserve truck from the Virginia Beach Fire Training Academy, according to City Manager David Hansen’s Hurricane Matthew recovery briefing for city council on Tuesday, Oct. 25. The fire truck, which was being used by Fire Station No. 20, will cost $500,000 to replace, an amount budgeted from the Fire Apparatus Capital Improvement Program, according to VBFD Public Information Officer Art Kohn.
Wazlak has worked for VBFD for 13 years, and calls Station No. 1, at 2837 Shore Dr., his office. But the night Matthew hit, he worked at Station No. 20, at 885 Little Neck Rd., because it was short on manpower.
“We were going to wires down calls all over Little Neck Road and trees were coming down … you could see transformers blowing off in the distance,” said Wazlak recalling the night’s work shift. “During those times, I get really focused.”
Wazlak worked through the night of Oct. 8, and at around 8 a.m. on Oct. 9, the call came.
The battalion chief saw smoke rising in the Bow Creek area, confirmed a fire, and Wazlak drove his crew toward it in a reserve 2002 American LaFrance Pumper, a truck designed to attack flames. A typical pumper carries 500 gallons of water and 1,000 feet of 5-inch supply line used to connect to a water source.
“I was trying to get to the fire and I could only go so fast … I didn’t want to get water in the engine and I was watching these waves coming from the fire truck crashing into people’s houses … cars were floating … anything with air in it was floating,” said Wazlak.
A visual that stands out to Wazlak is driving on bridges, once above water, and barely being able to see the guard rails, he said. The water came up to the truck’s front bumper, which made it look like a metal island in motion.
When they arrived, there was so much water in the street they couldn’t find a fire hydrant. So they laid a supply line from the truck to the street, using the flood to put the fire out.
Wazlak, who stands at six-feet-two-inches tall, said the water came up to his thighs. After wading through water mixed with sewage and oil, the person escaped the house and VBFD extinguished the fire. Wazlak describes it as “controlled chaos.”
The drive back was tricky because of caddy-cornered cars, drivers in opposite traffic lanes and dips in the road, Wazlack said. The truck eventually made it back to Station No. 20.
Shortly after returning, Wazlack hopped back into the driver’s seat to survey the area for a damage report.
“I remember we were driving through the neighborhood and I got a check engine light on,” said Wazlak. His officer told him to turn around.
“I made a U-turn, and it wasn’t but two seconds later that the truck started shaking and backfired. Then I immediately killed the battery.”
That was the end of the road for the fire truck. Wazlak and his crew called a tow truck and his battalion chief gave them a ride back to the fire station.
Now, the fire truck sits on a list of city vehicle losses, along with 15 police cars, five human services vehicles and a Department of Public Works pump truck. Norfolk Police Department and Norfolk Fire-Rescue told Southside Daily they lost no vehicles during Hurricane Matthew, though some of their vehicles need repairs.
“It’s going to stick with me for a very long time, probably for the rest of my career,” said Wazlak. “You see flooding in the area year after year, but a flood that deep in that part of the city, and a fire, is extremely rare.”
Contact Justin at Justin@southsidedaily.com.