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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 8, 2010

Fighting fire and water, Westerlo company prevails

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

WESTERLO — “The days have blended,” said Tom Diederich, Westerlo fire chief, describing the week that Tropical Irene swept through this rural town, and the aftermath that followed.

The blur of long days filled with fighting fires and pumping out cellars mixed with nights of scant sleep and worry.

The trials for the small department of dedicated volunteers began the day before the storm, on Saturday, Aug. 27, when the call came at about 10:30 a.m. that a house on Maple Avenue Extension was burning.

“The major part was not salvageable,” said Diederich this week; the cause is still being investigated by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

“Four firefighters were injured during the fight,” he said. “That’s the worst I’ve had…One had a ceiling fall in on him inside the burning structure.” Another had a muscle strain and a third suffered minor burns. All three of those volunteers were treated at the scene.

The fourth, with a shoulder injury, was transported to the hospital. All are recovering, Diederich said this week.

None of the family members who lived at 412 Maple Avenue Extension were injured, he said. “The husband was home in the garage, working with one of the kids,” he said. “Someone came over and told him the house was on fire.”

Fire companies from Berne, Greenville, Freehold, and Oak Hill-Durham all helped in the effort.

“Our people spent seven hours on the fire, including clean-up — a total of 30-plus. So we were pretty pooped when the storm came,” said Diederich.

The company had started getting ready for the hurricane on Friday. They filled gas cans and bought an additional chainsaw from memorial funds donated after the deaths of Maryannn May and William LaGrange.

Although, said Diederich, many of the firefighters used their own chainsaws.

Starting at 7 on Sunday morning, the Westerlo department answered 63 calls in the next two days. Most of them were pump-outs, some were for wires down, and others were to remove trees blocking roads.

Then, at 4:29 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, another house caught fire, this time at 39 Anabel Road.   “The family, the Germanis, lost all their belongings,” said Diederich. “It was probably storm-related; they were without power.”

The family members were asleep but were alerted to the fire when their dog barked and their smoke detectors went off, said Diederich; they escaped unharmed.

No firefighters were hurt battling the blaze.

The call came in at 4:29 and the fire trucks were on the road by 4:33 a.m. “We had just gotten a few hours’ sleep but we were there in minutes,” said Diederich.

He had gone to bed at about 1 a.m. but was “too wound up” to sleep much.

“My business is slammed right now, too,” said Diederich, who sells and installs two-way radios; many of them need storm restoration.

And then there were concerns at his own flooded home. “I had to empty out my basement into a Dumpster,” he said.

Still, what Diederich stresses is how proud he is of his crew.

“Although the team of Westerlo firefighters spent most of Saturday on the structure fire and all day Sunday answering calls, we were able to rally and get up and out quickly, in just a few minutes,” he said of getting to the fire on Anabel Road.

Unfortunately, the fire was already well advanced. But the firefighters’ quick response saved an adjacent garage with an occupied apartment over it; Diederich estimated that the garage was 25 feet from the house.

“This was the first fire we fought with the Westerlo municipal water system,” he said. “It worked great.”

He had been concerned because the town park, where the well, pump house, and generator backup are located, was flooded. “It worked like a champ,” said the chief.

But, since he wasn’t sure the system would work, Diederich said, he had called in the Rensselaerville, Berne, and Coeymans Hollow fire departments, with Greenville on standby.

“I couldn’t take the risk,” he said.

Looking back at the last week, he concluded, “I have the most awesome group of firefighters. It’s amazing what they accomplished.”

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