Firefighter injured in intentionally set Lakewood wildfire is welcomed home
The Forest Fire Service firefighter injured during the Lakewood wildfire was released from Ocean Medical Center on Friday and welcomed back to his Toms River firehouse.
A procession of trucks from the East Dover Fire Co. of Toms River, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and family and friends brought Brian Sauers home on Friday.
He was working the wind-whipped fire on March 14 with the Forest Fire Service in back of the Lowe's store on the Brick/Lakewood border when he collapsed, his son Brian Jr. told Townsquare Media News.
The cause of the fire, which burned 167 acres on both sides of the Garden State Parkway, remains under investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, which said a preliminary investigation determined the fire was intentionally set. Nobody has been charged with a crime.
Brian told Townsquare Media News he has no recollection of what happened during the fire or for two weeks afterwards. The last thing he remembers was coming home the night before from his grandson's birthday party.
"They took me out of Ocean Medical Center to Jersey Shore University Medical Center. I could hardly talk from the tube. It irritated my vocal cords so if you wanted to talk to me you had to be within earshot because it was like a whisper. Over time it gets better everyday," Brian said.
With his wife by his side, Brian compared his recovery to climbing a mountain.
"My wife is rock solid. She was there, there were ups and downs. I've climbed a mountain and I'm on my way down the other side. I survived." Brian said.
East Dover Fire Co. Warden Bill Roncskevitz, who organized the welcome home, was lighting a strategic backfire behind Lowe's when he saw Brian go unresponsive at his truck. He got a Brick police officer to call for an ambulance and helped get Brian out of the vehicle.
"A nurse from Ocean Medical Center was just there, she got out of her car. Brick EMS showed up and we had him loaded and off to the hospital. He had an escort from Brick police to get to the hospital," Roncskevitz said. "I got called by my boss, he had no idea what was going on. The fire was slamming the back of the houses and I was back to work."
Roncskevitz said his adrenaline was flowing as he continued to fight the fire and it didn't hit him until the next morning what had happened.
"We train to do this but it usually doesn't happen to somebody that's in the fire truck sitting next to you," Roncskevitz said.
Roncskevitz worked with police and the fire companies to put together Friday's procession.
"We are clapping him out of here today because he made it. Firefighters when they have an incident like this, if you look at the statistics, most people don't make it. The stars lined up and to me this is a celebration that we got him out of here and he's alive," Roncskevitz said.
After the initial two weeks, Brian's daughter Kristen Rau and son Justin Sauers, also a firefighter, said he's been eager to get home. She was appreciative of the support the family has received from the fire fighting community on the shore and beyond.
"It's beyond the Forest Fire Service. The first 'responderhood' in general. People from Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, Wyoming, it doesn't end. Without them none of us would have gotten through it," Justin said as he stood next to his sister. "We're blood family but every single person sitting here behind us is part of the family also."
"We could never imagine the amount of people he's touched without even meeting them," Rau said.
The family has run the gamut of emotions during Brian's recovery from happy to angry to sad to frustrated but it brought their blood and professional families closer.
"The amount of people here that we've never even met before that are here to clap my dad out. It's amazing," Rau said.