Tracey Keelen

Tracey Keelen '09

When Montclair State alumna Tracey Keelen ’09 and her boyfriend Russell “J” Gehweiler Jr. went to the Jersey Shore to check on his dad the morning after Hurricane Sandy, they had no idea it would turn into a 10-hour rescue mission.

As part of the Montclair State swimming and diving team for four years, Keelen, an Exercise Science and Adult Fitness major, credits her experience as a swimmer, lifeguard and personal trainer with helping her rescue dozens of people that day.

Before Sandy barreled ashore, the Ortley Beach couple evacuated to Toms River, but Gehweiler’s dad, a boat captain, rode out the storm at home in Brick Township. When they couldn’t reach him after the storm, they went to check on him.

They packed their Jeep with wetsuits, sweatshirts, towels and blankets—anything that might come in handy. “We tried to formulate a plan on the way over, but we had no idea what we were up against,” she says. “We thought there would be some water, but we didn’t think it would be anything like what we saw. Luckily, we’re the types that can easily adapt to any situation.”

More than a mile from the house, roads became impassable by car so they got out and began to walk, and then to swim. Using whatever they could find—paddleboards and a surfboard at first and then a rowboat and a canoe—they rescued Gehweiler’s dad and dog, but didn’t stop there.

“People were just standing in the water outside with blank stares. Some were huddled in the second story of a house,” Keelen says. “We made as many trips as possible, sometimes with more than 10 people on a boat at a time.”
They were up against more than the water. As it grew dark, they realized just how much danger they were in. Gasoline and debris floated in the water; the National Guard forbade them to enter the area; and their resources were dwindling. Still, nothing deterred them.
Finally, around 7 p.m., they brought the last people to safety.

All told, Keelen and Gehweiler rescued more than 50 people that day, and Governor Chris Christie recognized their heroism during his State of the State address on January 8—a “pivotal moment in my life,” Keelen says.

“It really struck a chord in my heart because, until then, I did not think much about it. I only did what I knew was right—helping others,” she says. “Hearing the governor’s heartfelt appreciation and the importance of my actions truly elevated what I and so many other heroes did in this extraordinary time of need.”

– Stacy Albanese