Evan Mooney debated whether to stay or flee as Hurricane Sandy neared Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., where he has worked at a boardwalk aquarium since graduating from Hanover Area High School in 2011.
The 19-year-old's desire to help protect the 1,800 sharks, penguins, seals and other sea creatures at Jenkinson's Aquarium ended up outweighing fears about his own safety. He later questioned his decision when the hurricane-fueled Atlantic Ocean blew out a basement wall of the building. We were scared to death. Me and the people I was with thought we were going to die, Mooney said.
Mooney and seven coworkers huddled in a pump house because they were surrounded by floodwaters. Their boss got stuck trying to rescue them, and 911 dispatchers said they'd have to stay put and ride out the storm.
His mother, Hanover Township resident Sheila Mooney, clutched her cellphone like a lifeline, powerless to help him as he battled to stay alive three hours away.
He had called her Sunday afternoon for guidance on the possibility he'd stay. As a mother, I wanted to say, ‘Run. Be safe,' she recalled.
She told her son she'd like him to come back here but said the choice was his because she knew he cared about the animals.'
I knew once he committed, he wouldn't change his mind, she said.
She had encouraged his love of marine life, taking him to the aquarium every year during annual summer family vacations at a nearby beach. She arranged for him to job shadow at the aquarium for a day between his junior and senior years.
Mooney had his own saltwater fish tanks at home and accepted an offer to work there and learn the ropes after graduation. He fell in love with the aquarium, she said.
She received a text from him around 11:30 p.m. Monday saying he was OK but didn't get to hear his voice until 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, when he relayed his harrowing experience of the structural damage and being trapped.
Mooney said all hell broke loose Monday night, when telephone poles in the parking lot fell down and water rushed into the aquarium basement, sending huge holding tanks into the parking lot.
A baby alligator, endangered fish and other animals kept in the basement had been moved to the first floor, but the workers had to temporarily leave the animals because they thought the building was going to fall down.
The workers returned when their boss got through the patchy cellphone service to say the basement wall facing the ocean was designed to blow during intense flooding.
The power loss threatened the animals because there was no way to provide heat, filtration and oxygen-dissolving aerators, he said. But the most pressing concern was a loss of light for the sharks because they get agitated in the dark, jeopardizing other marine life in the same tank, he said.
The first thing we did when we lost power was grab flashlights and shine them onto the sharks so they wouldn't go into hunting mode, he said. Small generators kept the 300 species of animals on very minimal life support until a powerful generator arrived Thursday, he said.
Mooney posted a picture of the generator on his Facebook page, saying, Christmas came early!!
Residents also responded to the aquarium's plea for donated gasoline and batteries to help keep the animals alive, the Asbury Park Press reported.
The aquarium isn't out of the woods yet because tons of deposited sand must be cleared out of the basement, he said. It's not like water that you could just pump out, he said. It's a mess.
Equipment that supports animal habitats and tanks also must be replaced, he said.
Physically and mentally drained, Mooney said the experience changed me drastically.
You find out what's important. People lost their lives and houses and everything they own, he said.
His mother already senses a change in her son. His apartment building is no longer habitable, and his car sustained damage.
He loved his car, but he said, ‘It's just a car,' she said.
Mooney said he has more appreciation for being alive.
During the storm, when I was trying to survive, I was not wondering if my car was OK, he said. Objects are replaceable – lives aren't.