ROXBURY, NJ – An amphibious vehicle owned by Morris County, worth about $100,000, sank in the middle of a shallow Roxbury pond Sunday morning while being used to rescue a deer that fell through the pond’s thin ice.
The Hydratrek vehicle, being driven by Morris County Director of Law and Public Safety Scott DiGiralomo, took on water and sank soon after coming close to the deer that was stranded for about a day. The deer was then rescued by Roxbury firefighters, who walked to it from the shore along Willow Walk Drive in Ledgewood.
The county vehicle was later pulled out of the pond by a tow truck using several long cables. DiGiralomo said he spoke to Hydratrek, and they assured him the vehicle will be fine once its fluids are changed and some electronic panels replaced.
The deer is also expected to be OK. After being removed from the pond, it was unable to walk and was eventually sedated and removed by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. A division biologist said the doe was transported to former Roxbury Police Chief Jim Simonetti’s Antler-Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary in Frelinghuysen.
The ordeal began Saturday when residents of the Lakeside Village, Willow Walk and Renaissance Village condominiums off Righter Road spotted the stranded deer. Officials initially were going to leave the animal alone, but – upon learning that people were planning rescue attempts on their own – decided they would come back Sunday morning.
The Hydratrek arrived at about 9 a.m. and entered the pond from the northwest side about a half-hour later. Roxbury firefighters in water rescue gear awaited on the northeast side.
The diesel powered vehicle slowly churned its way through the thin ice toward the deer. As he got close, DiGiralomo attempted to make a K-turn so he could back up to the animal.
That’s when things went bad.
With the crew accompanying DiGiralomo at the rear of the machine, the front of the Hydratrek tipped upward. Water rushed into the backside. Within minutes the machine’s engine burbled to a stop and the Hydratek came to rest on the muddy bottom, about 15 feet below the surface.
All that remained visible was the top of its roll-bar, the tip of its silver exhaust and a red light that continued to blink.
DiGiralomo and the other men, all dressed in water rescue gear, stood on the sunken Hydratrek. The deer looked on, as did some nearby gulls. Reporters gazed, television crews filmed and a drone owned by the county buzzed overhead.
The team of Roxbury firefighters on the northeast shore began gingerly walking toward the scene, checking the ice for thickness as they approached the deer. A motorboat from the other shore came to fetch the Hydratrek crew.
Although it bellowed in fear or protest, the deer was safely slid to shore. It was let free, but its attempts at running failed and it ended up laying in the sun on a sidewalk for about an hour.
As it did, a heavy-duty tow truck came to the other side of the pond. Then began the effort to retrieve the county’s sunken machine, a project that involved several trips by rowboat to the machine, several different ideas involving cables and ropes and one that didn’t conclude until after 3 p.m.
Roxbury Police Chief Marc Palanchi said the deer rescue effort was led by the Morris County Office of Emergency Management which decided the use of the Hydratreck was the best way to handle the deer rescue given the uncertain thickness of the pond's ice.
“The equipment malfunctioned and went under,” he said, stressing that reports about people planning to save the deer on their own was the main reason so much effort was put into the matter.
“Usually, we just let nature take its course,” Palanchi said. “I mean if this wasn’t behind a condo complex, if it was in the middle of the woods, nature would just take its course and the deer would either get out or it wouldn’t. But here, with people seeing it, and the fear of them acting … That’s what kind of spurred the decision.”
One of the people the chief was likely talking about was Renaissance Village resident Scott Justen.
“We were brainstorming,” Justen said before the Hydratrek spectacle unfolded. “We wanted to save her. I was going to get a boat or a raft and 400 or 500 feet of rope, tie the rope around her neck and get a few people on shore to pull us back.”
But Justen let caution prevail over concern for the deer and he abandoned the do-it-yourself rescue plan.
“You just kind of run into these variables,” he said. “You just can’t risk it … They would have to be called to come get me out. Then they’d have to risk their lives to save my life that I risked to save a deer.”