Big Indian Oliverea Fire Company recognized for flood effort

By John Michelotti
With the raging waters surrounding the house rising dramatically and Big Indian Oliverea Fire Chief Jody Rossitz trying desperately trying to rouse the seven young people within, time was growing very short. The strong current overpowered a massive 18 wheel county dump truck chained to an even larger front loader sent to attempt a rescue. And the waters kept rising. Finally awake, the young residents were pleading for help as it became aware to all on the scene that the situation had become grave.

For the second time is as many months the Big Indian Oliverea Fire Company (BIOFD) and Chief John Rossitz have been recognized for their work “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” during and after Hurricane Irene. Recognized by local, regional and state-wide firefighter’s associations and county and state officials, the BIOFD was awarded a multitude of awards and citations including “Fire Company of the Year”, “Certificate of Excellence”, the “ 2012 Unit Citation of the Year” award and the “2011 Outstanding Unit” citation.

Chief honored
For his leadership, BIOFD Chief John Rossitz was awarded the “Special Recognition” award from the Hudson Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association.

With a volunteer base of just 18 firefighters BIOFD, responsible for a 42-square-mile area of Ulster County, led a heroic effort to save lives and rescue survivors of the worst flooding in well over 100 years. Lacking even simple communications for over eight days, the volunteers of the BIOFD worked tirelessly, in impossible conditions, to find and account for every resident of the valley.

Eighteen of the roads in the area were completely gone or impassible. Five bridges were destroyed. There was no electricity, no cable, no phones. As most homes are dependent on wells, the lack of power meant that few had water. Hundreds of structures were damaged and some completely washed away. A dam holding back Winnisook Lake at the top of the valley was in jeopardy of collapsing. In this backdrop the volunteers of the BIOFD had to find a way to reach every single resident and every guest of the hotels and inns of which most were full. They safely evacuated hundreds of people including some with severe medical issues using whatever means they could devise to transport past landslides and destroyed bridges.

The BIOFD Auxiliary manned the firehouse as a shelter and distributed water, food, blankets and administered first aid. Feeding up to 80 people at a time became the norm for the week following the flood. The auxiliary provided rides to those without transportation and gave comfort to so many who had lost so much.

Outside assistance
The BIOFD had much help from organizations such as NYSP, DEC, UCSO, DEP, Kanona &Wayne Fire Departments, NYS National Guard, Belleayre Mountain, Shandaken Police and Highway Department and many individual volunteers. But it was the courage and steadfastness of the firefighters of the BIOFD in the face of such a daunting challenge that brought welcome reassurance to the residents of Big Indian and Oliverea in the days and weeks following the disaster.

Having put in a mayday call to the dive team from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office to help in the rescue of the seven young people, Chief Rossitz watched in horror as the house was ripped from its foundation and began floating downstream. Before it could be destroyed in the raging waters, it caught on a guardrail and wedged against a tree. The dive team performed the most amazing feat of water rescue and saved the seven young people from an almost certain death.