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A few popular businesses along the drive down to Key West started their long journey of digging out. It will be tough, but they are thankful for what was left. Andrea Melendez/news-press.com

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Off-duty Cape Coral firefighters and the Key West Express shuttle boat on Fort Myers Beach partnered on two impromptu humanitarian missions by sea to aid Hurricane Irma survivors in the Florida Keys.

The trips were not without perils.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 13, three days after Irma left all of Key West without power or adequate communications early Sept. 10, Cape Coral firefighter Steve Hernden loaded his 26-foot catamaran, “The Tortuga,” with 1,000 pounds of water, four chainsaws and an assortment of food and other supplies. He drove the boat to Marco Island on a trailer. Matt Vinci and Mark Treglio of the International Association of Firefighters of Washington, D.C., went with him.

From Marco Island, Hernden navigated the boat in the Gulf of Mexico three and a half hours due south to Key West. Because the U.S. Coast Guard had closed the port, and because there were no lights on the docks other than from some of the other boats on them, it took an additional hour to dock, Hernden said.

“They’re brother firefighters,” Hernden said. “I wanted to get down and help. The Key West people, they’re all Conchs. Everyone was in a pretty good mood. The gratitude from everyone was great. You had grown men tearing up. It was absolutely incredible.”

Hernden and his crew found rooms at the DoubleTree Inn, albeit without air conditioning or electricity. On Thursday morning, Sept. 14, they hit the ground running, assisting the Key West Fire Department with clearing debris and assessing the needs of the southernmost point of the continental United States.

That’s also when Key West Express began to assist. All day Thursday, the business partnered on Fort Myers Beach with the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Association, a union for firefighters.

Volunteers stocked the 170-foot, three-deck catamaran with 30 gas-powered generators, 18 chainsaws, cases of bottled water, food and other supplies.

The catamaran normally travels with about 470 tourists. This time, it had just a dozen passengers while loaded with supplies. It departed Fort Myers Beach at 6 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15 and arrived to Key West less than four hours later.

“The motto in Key West is ‘One Human Family,’” said Linda Miller, general manager of Key West Express. “I’m just so proud of our Southwest Florida community. We were able to respond to the needs of others. It was very, very heartwarming.

“We didn’t have much time to wait and respond. Everyone reacted and came together as a team very, very quickly.”

In addition to helping fellow firefighters, the Key West Express brought aid to its own two employees who live on Key West. It also transported four employees of Ocean Properties, which brought supplies to its six hotels on the island.

Miller said she's looking forward to Key West Express operating again as usual. She learned Thursday that on Thursday, Oct. 5, the shuttle can resume normal business operations. Key West hotels are beginning to reopen this weekend.

Hernden, who honeymooned with his wife on Key West and has made frequent vacations there, said he was stunned by the scenes of a darkened, empty Duval Street, the island’s usually busy thoroughfare of tourists and bar hoppers.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever gone to bed in Key West,” Hernden said, noting the sundown curfew. “Duval Street was completely shut down. It was very bizarre. I saw all of the plywood painted ‘Irma Go Away’ or ‘Irma not welcome here.’ Trees were knocked down everywhere. It was quite the experience. Big Pine Key all the way to Marathon, the winds were so strong, they ripped all the leaves off the mangroves down there.”

Staying until Sunday, Sept. 17, allowed Hernden and company to travel east of Key West. Fellow off-duty Cape Coral firefighters Brendan Fonock, Tim Schwab, Ken Ossowicz, Matt D’Andrea, Jon Thomson, Kel Verplank and Dominic Canova had joined Hernden in the Keys.

While some of the firefighters took the Key West Express to the Keys, others were flown there by pilot Ted Ehrlich. The member of the Sundowners Flying Club of Fort Myers, a Vietnam War veteran and Silver Star recipient, volunteered two days of his time. Ossowicz, a Cape Coral batalion chief, began cold-calling potential pilots and connected with Ehrlich through the flying club.

Once in the Keys, Hernden and his colleagues split into two teams. Some drove north on U.S. 1 between Key West and Marathon, while others stayed in Key West. Both teams helped administer hepatitis B and tetanus vaccines to those worried about contaminated water.

“They found with Harvey in Houston, working in the standing waters, they were having increased outbreaks of Hepatitis A, just because of the bacteria in the standing water,” Hernden said. “You didn’t have fresh water and running water to clean your hands with. Working all day long, and coming in to eat, there was that increased possibility of Hep A and tetanus. Most firefighters have tetanus, but after five years, they recommend a booster.”

Hernden and Eric Chudzik, president of the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Association, remain grateful for the cooperation of Key West Express.

Hernden called it a “game changer.”

“We were able to get a quick response team down there,” Hernden said. “That was huge, to be able to have, in three and a half hours, a ship full of supplies there.”

Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).

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