3 NJ LEOs swept away in flooding fired guns to signal for help

The Hopewell Township officers clung to trees for nearly two hours while waiting to be rescued

By Kevin Shea

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, N.J. — The call was for a vehicle in floodwaters on Route 518 in Hopewell Township — one of many rescue calls in New Jersey Wednesday evening as storms from Hurricane Ida flooded the state. Police Officer James Hoffman went to check it out.

Moments after arriving in the area, east of Route 31 at about 8:30 p.m., Hoffman turned into a victim.

Rt. 1 in Lawrence is under water at the I-295 interchange early Thursday, September 2, 2021, after devastating levels of rain fell in the state from the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida.
Rt. 1 in Lawrence is under water at the I-295 interchange early Thursday, September 2, 2021, after devastating levels of rain fell in the state from the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida. (Michael Mancuso)

His patrol car started taking on water, then started floating away — sliding sideways about 100 yards into deeper water. Hoffman ditched his bulky duty vest, climbed through a window and started swimming. He found a tree and held on.

It got worse, though, Hopewell Township Police Director Bob Karmazin told NJ Advance Media on Thursday morning.

Two officers who went to assist Hoffman after he made a distress call — Michael Makwinski and Robert Voorhees — were also swept into the raging waters and also had to leave their vehicle.

“These two officers were also swept much like the other,” Karmazin said.

They too found trees to anchor themselves, Karmazin said.

For nearly two hours, as rescue firefighters arrived from all over Mercer County to help township firefighters find the officers, the department dreaded the outcome.

“We were not sure if we lost the officer,” Karmazin said. The department knew where the officers last radioed in, but had lost communication with them as the officers went into survival mode.

As firefighters zeroed in on their exact location, the officers fired their guns to mark their location.

A crew from the Hamilton Fire Department, led by Battalion Chief Tim Sharpley, led the final rescue, bringing the three officers on boats and dry land.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude,” Karmazin said.

The officers were taken to a local hospital to be examined, but all three were basically uninjured, although wet and exhausted.

“Real heroes,” Karmazin said of the officers. “They had a total disregard for their own safety, and we’re very lucky they were able to hold on the way they did.”

Karmazin said Hoffman held on for nearly two hours, and Makwinski and Voorhees almost as long. The police director talked to Hoffman, a 24-year veteran, “And he realized the peril that he was in.”

Sharpley, the Hamilton chief, said when he arrived at the scene shortly before 10 p.m., it was harrowing.

“The water was rushing pretty bad, it was moving,” he said. And the officers were firing their guns to let rescuers know where they were.

Sharpley said other fire crews from Hopewell and Lawrence had actually located the officers and assisted the Hamilton firefighters, clad in swift-water rescue gear, in reaching the officers with boats.

“It was a joint effort by multiple agencies,” he said. Among them were the Union Fire Co. in Hopewell and Lawrenceville Fire Co. in Lawrence.

One officer, Sharpley said, collapsed in the boat when rescued.

“He just laid there by himself to gather himself for a few minutes,” Sharpley said.

The cops’ rescue, Sharpley reminded, occurred after firefighters from all over Mercer County had already made several life-saving rescues of trapped motorists, and all involved worked into early Thursday on similar calls elsewhere.

“Everyone did a fantastic job, we got the officers back and they get to be with their families, and that’s a good thing,” Sharpley said.

The New Jersey State PBA called it the “Miracle in Mercer County” late Wednesday when word of the officers’ rescue started to spread throughout the police service.

Karmazin said later Thursday the rescue was one of about 50 during the Ida storms in Hopewell.

The Hopewell officers who were saved have been lauded for their own life-saving efforts in the past. Hoffman in 2014 was part of a team that pulled an 86-year-old woman from her burning home.

Last November, Makwinski, a five-year officer, and Voorhees, who has been on the job for 12 years, saved a man’s life by using an automated external defibrillator, or AED. The next month the man went to the police department to thank the officers for saving him.

And Voorhees in 2017 tied a rope to his waist and crawled onto an icy pond to rescue a family’s dog.

“We were lucky last night,” Karmazin said. “Everyone is OK now and they’re back home resting.”

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