Late last Monday night and into early Tuesday morning, waters were rising as Howard Beach was bearing the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Sergeant Paul Jonathan “PJ” Marcel of the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps, along with his friend Frank Spallino, a former marine, pulled up to a rapidly flooding home in Marcel’s monstrous A.M. General M35 2 ½ ton decommissioned military cargo truck.
As Spallino backed into the driveway, he had to ram two cars out of the way in order to get as close as possible.
“Your ride’s here, sorry I’m late!” Marcel said as he helped a mother and her two children aboard.
“Is that everyone?” he then asked. “Any pets?”
“My bird, Snowy!” the daughter screamed.
With that, Marcel jumped out of the truck and back into the house where he found the birdcage, grabbed it and made it back right as the water started rushing halfway up his legs.
These were just three of the over 120 people Marcel and Spallino helped rescue during Sandy. They braved exploding transformers and floating vehicles in order to get Howard Beach residents to safety, charging through the rising waters in Marcel’s truck, which he fondly calls the “deuce-and-a-half,” or just “the deuce.”
“This truck can go through anything,” Marcel said, adding that the tires stand over four feet tall.
Marcel and Spallino met with members of New York City fire, police and ambulance services, who had mobilized in the area of Cohancy Street between 157th and 158th Avenue at around 9 p.m. last Monday night. From there, they went out on rescue missions that included tending to people stranded in their homes and retrieving EMTs whose ambulances had been submerged.
Each outing was hardly ever without someone flagging them down, asking for assistance with their own stranded families or a phone call from a friend asking for assistance in the area as well. Marcel said the truck was capable of fitting around 15 people at a time, not to mention all of the pets they rescued as well.
Between each run, Spallino would monitor the rapidly deteriorating state of the truck’s mechanics. All of the water was posing a threat to the truck’s electrical system. On top of that, the tires were losing air pressure.
At one point, members of FDNY approached Marcel and told them about a house fire on 95th Street between 157th and 158th Avenue. Waters were too high for fire department vehicles to drive through, so they asked the men if they could transport firefighters to the scene.
“At this point, we both knew in each others’ eyes that the truck might not run, that we might get stuck out there,” Marcel said. “But we grabbed the firefighters and we went.”
Soon they arrived at the house, which was “completely engulfed in flames,” as Marcel said. Spallino backed up the truck as close to the house as he could and firefighters ultimately had to use a raft to get the 10 people, including a newborn child, safely to the truck.
“The look on their faces was just fear,” Marcel said, describing the reactions of many of the people they rescued. After the storm had subsided, he went out to visit many of them, where he was met with firm handshakes, tight embraces and teary-eyed expressions of thanks.
Even after the hurricane was over and the flood waters had receded, Marcel continued to help by using his pickup to haul cars out of the middle of streets so emergency vehicles could get through. He and his wife Daniela brought water and other supplies to Hamilton Beach residents and ran tanks of gas to people living off of generators. He used his own generator to establish a charging station at his house, where he is without power himself, allowing his neighbors to charge their electronic devices.
Marcel and Spallino’s acts have caught the attention of the national media as well. They sat down for an interview on Anderson Cooper’s “Anderson Live,” last Thursday and will return to the show on Thursday, November 8. He is also scheduled to appear on Headline News’ “Dr. Drew” tomorrow. Marcel has also since auditioned for TNT’s upcoming new series “The Hero,” which will be hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Marcel says the cargo truck he and Spallino used throughout the hurricane is now barely operational. On top of this, he lost seven other vehicles and took substantial damage to two of his massive storage containers. He continues to live without power, surviving only on the generator that sits out on his deck. Even with all these things out of service, Marcel remains ready, regularly posting on his Facebook for people to reach out to him if they need any further help.