TEANECK, N.J. - The full fury of Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the New Jersey National Guard armory in Teaneck just after 4 a.m. Tuesday when the call came in.
A burst levee 10 miles away was sending a torrent from the Hackensack River into the towns of Moonachie and Little Ferry. Lives were in danger.
Staff Sergeants Katie Cataldo and Bryan Schooley led a convoy of 10 trucks that raced through blinding rain and howling winds to reach a Bergen County Emergency Management command center in 28 minutes.
In another five minutes, National Guard Soldiers began helping people onto trucks to escape the rising floodwaters.
"We were told we needed to hustle," said Cataldo, 32, who works as an adoptions investigator for the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Service in civilian life. "So we just hauled to get down there. We wanted to help."
The National Guard remains in Moonachie and a dozen other communities over a150-mile swath of New Jersey stretching from Bergen County to Cape May where its Soldiers and Airmen have brought more than 6,000 people and 200 pets to safety over the past five days.
Brig. Gen. James J. Grant, the commander of the Joint Task Force responding to Hurricane Sandy, on Thursday told Soldiers and Airmen who had been on storm duty for six straight days that they were heroes.
"You encountered human beings who had lost everything," Grant said. "And when they see you, and that uniform, you bring a sense of calmness."
Schooley, the Soldier who directed the mission into Moonachie with Cataldo, said people were grateful when they saw the green National Guard trucks rolling through the floodwaters and into their neighborhoods.
"People just wanted help to get out of those places; they were filling with water," he said. "We were helping older people, women with children, dogs, cats, anything we could fit on the trucks."
Many of the people who were evacuated by the National Guard ended up at state-run shelters for displaced residents. The National Guard had a presence at five of those shelters in Middlesex and Monmouth counties from the first days of the storm.
As the week went on, Soldiers and Airmen established a shelter for displaced residents at the Jersey City armory and then assisted with the creation of a shelter in Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County.
Many of the Soldiers and Airmen who responded to the storm had spent days away from their own homes, which were not spared the storm’s wrath.
Spc. Olivia Ospina of Patterson said her home had suffered some water damage because of the storm, but was convinced that helping her neighbors recover from the storm was her duty.
"I just want to get out there and get my feet wet to help these people," Ospina said. "This is what I signed up for."
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Eugeneia Aikens grew up in Atlantic City and knows the ocean. But she never saw it quite like it looked when her unit pulled up near the convention center to begin evacuating people whose homes were already full of five feet of water.
"Most people see the ocean as a very peaceful and calm place," Aikens said. "That night, the oceans jumped up and wanted to take away everything. It was not a nice place."
The mission that brought Aikens to Atlantic City from a National Guard command center in Pomona had begun as an assignment to deliver 1,500 cots to a shelter and changed into a mission to save lives.
One of the first people the Soldiers encountered when they rolled into Atlantic City in 5-ton trucks capable of fording 30-inches of water was Fire Capt. Thomas Joseph Culleny Jr.
"There were people trapped who were being forced to the roof of their homes because of rising waters," Culleny said. "Without that five-on, without the National Guard and the fire department working as a team, we would have not gotten to those people."
Scenes like that played out across that night and into Tuesday morning along the Jersey Shore and into the densely populated New York suburbs of Hudson and Bergen counties.
Many had been like Judy Litwinowicz of Brant Beach, N.J., on Long Beach Island, who had been stranded in the cold and wet with her cat for two days before the National Guard arrived.
She felt powerless when the tidal surge swept across her narrow barrier island.
"We had lived here for 25 years and lived through plenty of storms, but nobody expected anything like this," she said. "The National Guard guys were right on target and they found me and helped get me out. I can’t thank them enough."
Contributing: Army 1st Sgt. David Moore, Sgt. 1st Class Jerome Grant, Sgt. William Addison and Spc. Michael Davis