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Heroes Among Us

University employee Brian Warner and his fellow volunteer firefighters rescued 15 people and two dogs from Ida’s floodwaters

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group of firefighters posed on the back of a hook-and-ladder truck
University employee Brian Warner (center), with his fellow members of Hawthorne Fire Dept. Rescue Company 5: Left to right: Brandon Frei, Matt Cook, Zack Alkes, Anthony Manzo III, Noah Troast. Not pictured: Lt. Brian Patmos, Nick DeMarco.

On September 1, unprecedented hourly rainfall from Tropical Storm Ida led to sudden rushing waters that flooded buildings and streets and, tragically, took the lives of 30 people across New Jersey.

Brian Warner, a technology support desktop specialist at the Feliciano School of Business, was working that night to save as many lives as possible. He and his fellow firefighters from the Hawthorne Volunteer Fire Department rescued 15 people and two dogs from swiftly moving waters throughout the night.

“I think the guys did such a wonderful job. They were dealt a dirty hand and went through six hours of living hell,” says Hawthorne Fire Chief Joe Speranza.

For the past 30 years, Warner, who has worked for the University since 2013 and is currently earning his bachelor’s degree here, has volunteered during his off hours as a firefighter in Hawthorne.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, Warner stressed the collaborative nature of the rescues.

“It’s a team,” says Warner, an ex-assistant chief in Company 5. “It’s not me. It’s all of us.”

“It goes back to the team concept,” says Speranza. “A good fire officer will let his knowledge lead the way.”

Outlining the details of a series of boat and “walk-in” rescues, Warner says he had just finished a pre-session with his ECON 101 professor, then spoke to his 18-year-old son, Logan, a probationary firefighter who was at the firehouse doing a truck check. Warner was put on standby around 8 p.m. and shortly afterward went out on his first call to save motorists from flooded cars.

Warner recounted one rescue where maneuvering the boat was difficult due to the rapid movement of the water, necessitating a “walk-in” rescue. He detailed how multiple firefighters are needed to walk each person out of a flood rescue because of hazards such as manhole covers floating out when waters rise and pressure equalizes. “If you fall into that, you’re not coming out,” says Warner.

After trying unsuccessfully with the boat, Warner, along with Captain Anthony Manzo and Firefighter Brandon Frei, “brought the boat back, put it in a driveway. Got in a triangle, put the strongest guy up front and locked arms.” The firefighters walked through the water in triangle formation to the car to rescue the motorist.

“And this is all while it’s downpouring,” says Warner.

After several more rescues, they returned to the firehouse after 1:30 a.m. to reset and prepare their equipment – “in case we had to go back out.”

“I got home about 3 a.m. and then I said to my wife, ‘I need to be up at 6:30,’ because it’s the first day of school and if you want to do the job, you’ve still got to do your other job. That’s the one thing I tell my son: ‘You can come out and answer calls, but don’t think you’re not going to school.’”

Warner says he returned on Saturday and Sunday to the firehouse to go out and look for missing Montclair State student Ayush Rana and Rana’s friend Seton Hall student Nidhi Rana. The two went missing in Passaic; sadly, their bodies were later found in Kearny.

Brian Warner seated on the front bumper of a fire truck
Brian Warner works as a technology support desktop specialist at the Feliciano School of Business. In his off hours, he is a volunteer firefighter and is working on his bachelor’s degree at Montclair.

The work never ends. Warner says that the department has already started more boat rescue training. “I’ve been in Floyd, Irene, Sandy and now this. I’ve been in all four hurricanes and superstorms on the boat, in our town, in the water, but it’s something different every time.”

Warner, 49, is working toward a BA in Business Administration/Management at Montclair State. Logan is following in his dad’s footsteps in more ways than one. Beyond their shared rescue work, Logan plans to attend the University next year. Second son, Sean, 13, will follow in a few more years. Warner credits his wife Kathleen for supporting his volunteer work: “I couldn’t do it without her.”

“It’s not at all surprising that Brian is a volunteer firefighter,” says Brian’s boss Roger Salomon, director of Technology Services for the Feliciano School of Business. “To a fault, he always wants to help. I remember the pride I felt the time I saw a water rescue on the news where Brian was in a wetsuit saving someone from drowning.”

Salomon says that Warner also goes “above and beyond to help the faculty, staff and students of the Feliciano School of Business and the University.”

“In line with the University’s mission of maintaining a learning community, Brian’s love for knowledge sharing is the same with our student technical assistants,” he says. “It’s what makes our team so strong.”

Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.