Losing a fire station, overcoming obstacles they’ve never faced, and feeling helpless are just a few things the Sanibel fire chief and firefighters recall about the moments and days after Hurricane Ian.
WINK News sat down with some of those first responders who walked us through what the island looked like when they first arrived by ferry and the stories that stuck with them.
“I’ve been here for 20 years,” said Sanibel Fire Control and Rescue Captain Chris Jackson.
Firefighters and paramedics Rob Bell, Arian Moore, and Allen Schelm each dedicated their lives to helping others even when a massive hurricane was headed straight at them.
“You need to do what’s right, and we need to take care of our island,” said Bell.
“There was mountains of debris, like 20 feet tall, and everything was just everywhere,” said Moore.
“When we go through fire school into paramedic school, we’re taught we’re public servants, you know, and so that doesn’t always look like fighting a fire. It’s not always big and glamorous,” said Bell.
Hurricane Ian was anything but glamorous. The storm turned the oasis of green into an ugly brown — leveling homes and businesses and collapsing the Sanibel Causeway into the Gulf.
“We were there at about 5 a.m. the morning after the hurricane, and the news crews were already on scene at the toll plaza, and they were like, ‘what do you guys going to do about the causeway collapsing?’ And we were like, ‘what do you mean?’ Because we hadn’t even seen it. I walked up there with flashlights, and you can see the span was like somebody cut it out like a piece of cake. It was gone,” Jackson said.
These firefighters evacuated the island. When they returned, they feared for the people they lived to serve.
“We were all on a ferry. And then first landing on the island and getting out walking around just the devastation just shocked by how many trees were down,” said Bell.
Bell said the hurricane turned Periwinkle Way into a jungle. Vegetation, debris, and even homes littered nearly every road.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen twister when they’re driving through a house. There was a house in the middle of Wesco. You had to go around it. Not even one. There was multiple,” said Moore.
“This is an island that a lot of us had been on our entire lives and so, so much damage that you couldn’t really identify where you were on it. It was just a weird feeling,” said Bell.
At one point, they had to make a map using wine bottles as markers on the road.
“It was five streets that we were constantly hitting, and I stuck them in the road so where you could see, ‘OK, this is a street, this is where you can turn,’ and for so long. Still, think about it. There was one, two, three, four, or five wine bottles, the colors, and then you know you went too far when you hit the back end of a tree,” said Moore.
Not to be overlooked, the people who stayed on the island through the storm. These firefighters couldn’t believe how many people lived through the wind, water, and surge.
“I mean, there’s hundreds if not 1,000s of stories. We expected a couple hundred people on the island. We evacuated, the following three or four days after the storm, we evacuated about 1,000 people. So there’s a lot more people than we expected,” said Jackson.
“I personally rescued, if you know, Cap is saying it’s about 1,000. You know you got to figure probably 50-60 of those I got out myself and brought down to the dock to get them out, and it’s just seeing the devastation on their face,” said Bell.
What stories stuck with these first responders the most?
“We had stories of people climbing in their attics, putting their dogs in their attics, and waiting the storm out. Ones that walked across the street and five foot a storm surge with waves breaking to break into a neighbor’s garage because that was a two-story house and they were in a one-story house,” said Jackson.
“There was a gentleman. Second day, and we were clearing houses, a young man, you got into a home, absolutely refused to leave. Didn’t leave. He went through the storm in his house all by himself. As we’re leaving, young man came up on the pike asking if he had been we’ve been through to that address. It was his grandfather. He had been stuck in his own house and couldn’t get to his grandfather for that 44-48 hours. And we told him, ‘yep, he’s alive,’” said Schelm.
“We had a woman that I picked up, and she was telling me her story about how she was in her house. It started to flood, and it flooded so bad that she had this swim out of her window, and she was able to cling to a palm tree with her dog,” said Bell.
They all made significant sacrifices.
“Quite a few of us… didn’t see my house in the daytime for about a week after the storm. Yeah, it was because we were here from dark till dark, basically,” said Jackson.
All because they had a job to do.
“When you get asked to do something, do it with, you know, all your might do it as good as you can. So I think that’s something that I’m hoping you know, everybody’s takeaway from this is that we need to come together. We need a community. You know, not everybody can do the glamorous job. Sometimes it’s us going out and cutting down a tree or moving something out of the way. And if everyone has that mentality, you know, life gets a lot easier for everybody. We all split the work. We’re all equals,” said Bell.
A hero’s motto, if there ever was one.
Sanibel Fire and Rescue District Captain John Dimaria knows the island roads better than most.
“You’re seeing obviously 72 days after now. I mean, but you’re seeing the best of it,” said Dimaria as he showed WINK News reporter Emma Heaton the current state of the island.
Emma: “Knowing that there were deaths and you guys couldn’t save everyone. How do you push forward?”
Dimaria: “It’s difficult.”
Dimaria allowed WINK News to ride along as he showed us the hardest-hit spots of Sanibel more than two months after Hurricane Ian drowned homes and businesses, leaving Sanibel in ruins.
“Just the week prior to this, we were running calls. Everything was green buildings were upright. And unfortunately, this is what we came to. Buildings in the road, cars in the road, cars upside down, cars, and trees. And it was devastating,” Dimaria said.
Dimaria said he and his team had to maneuver through roads filled with muck and debris.
In the hours before Ian slammed ashore, firefighters evacuated. When they returned, they were emotional.
“It was so heart-wrenching just because our nature is to rescue is to help people. That’s what we do. And unfortunately, we couldn’t do so. And we felt so helpless at the time. And it was just… It hurt,” said Dimaria.
Dimaria said it still hurts. As he showed WINK News Sanibel Captiva Road, damage remains everywhere. Dimaria reminded us that just because it was too dangerous to respond didn’t mean people stopped calling for help.
“You’re literally making a log of all of these calls coming in, and you can’t do anything about it. And that was the most difficult part with me was dealing with having to record those on a piece of paper and not get in the fire truck and respond to them and help them,” said Dimaria. “You can’t say anything to the people. And you can’t; you can’t do anything to help them. ”
First responders surrounded by loss also had to deal with their own losses.
There was between five and six feet of water in one of the Sanibel Fire and Rescue District fire stations. Firefighters had to gut the entire place, which has been deemed uninhabitable.
“You walk down this hallway. So that was the kitchen, this was the living room, then you come back to the hallway here, and this is where all the bedrooms are. ”
Despite their losses, Sanibel’s firefighters remain committed to helping people return and recover.
“This is our job. This is what we do. This is what we’re we’re built to do,” Dimaria said.
Sanibel firefighters want everyone to remain safe by not burning their hurricane debris due to the extreme dryness we are experiencing. If you’re becoming restless waiting for pickup, call Sanibel fire at (239) 472-5525, and they will direct you on how to get rid of it.