Sometimes Heroes Don’t Feel So Heroic

One Woman Died, One Man Rescued from Salem County Flash Flood


In the midst of the worst part of Hurricane Irene, troopers from Woodstown Barracks in Salem County pulled off one miracle, but wanted two.  Just prior to 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 28th, a panicked call came in to the 911 dispatch center from a young woman who drove her car on Rt. 40 in the blinding rain and ran right into a flash flood on a branch of the Salem River.  Her car had been swept off the road and into a low-lying forest that was now filled with more than 10 feet of rushing water.


Within a couple of minutes, three troopers were on scene near the intersection of Kings Highway in Pilesgrove, attempting to locate any sign of the caller or the vehicle, a grey Honda Accord.  A local fire station quickly arrived on scene with vehicles and additional rescue personnel.  After an exhaustive visual search, there was no sign of the car from Rt. 40, so troopers took to nearby roads to check downstream in hopes that the victim could be spotted. 


Rescue workers were on scene about an hour scanning the swift water running along the 150-yard-wide flood plane, when a pickup truck entered the road from the opposite side of the water and proceeded directly toward the flashing emergency lights.  That vehicle was swept immediately off the road and the driver was pushed into the forest by the currents.  Troopers were around the corner and were recalled to the Rt. 40 Bridge, but although the truck’s location was known, the driver could not be found.


A/Lt. Jay Miller, A/Sgt. M. Donahue, and Tpr. Dan Cunning entered the rushing waters on the roadway.  Tpr. Cunning tied himself to a rope and waded into the 4-foot-deep waters crossing the road as he yelled and shined his flashlight looking for either victim.  Over the howling wind, he heard James Troy, 68, of Cape May calling back from somewhere in the wooded river.  The fire company then drove a high-wheeled truck into the flooded roadway.  Cunning finally spotted Troy clinging to a tree and attempted to throw a life ring to him.  Failing to reach him, Cunning, a lifeguard trainer, retied his safety rope to the front bumper of the fire truck and ventured off the road, swimming into the dangerous forest waters.  He reached Troy and gave him the life ring.  The other troopers and fire personnel pulled them both back to safety. 


Cunning immediately returned to the water in search of the first reported victim, but still found no sign.  Troy was taken to a local hospital where he was treated and released later in the day.


After daylight, a rescue diver with New Jersey Task Force One searched the forest river and located the Honda with its roof still submerged under four feet of water.  He was able to break the car window and retrieve the body of Celena Sylvestri, 20, of Quinton, Salem County.  Sylvestri was declared at the scene and her body removed by the medical examiner’s office. 


The waters began to quickly recede after the rain stopped and the roof of the Honda became visible above water by noon.  By mid-afternoon, a tow truck was able to winch the Honda from the forest.  It was more than 50-feet from the road.  Troy’s pickup was removed at the same time.


Trooper Cunning responded to one media question about the ordeal this way: “Under those conditions, we got lucky with Mr. Troy.  We could barely see or hear anything, and to find him and be able to rescue him with that current through those trees was amazing.  I just wish we could have found the first driver before it was too late.”  Sometimes heroes don’t feel so heroic.


Flood waters in many areas of the state are not expected to crest for a day or two.  The public is advised to obey all traffic restrictions, but more than that, to obey common sense.  Do not travel into water that is covering roadways.  Do not continue driving when visibility drops to a point where there is insufficient time to react to roadway conditions ahead. 

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