Wayne Police Officer Bob Franco is walking.
Franco is rehabilitating from the severe spinal cord injury he suffered during Superstorm Sandy.
“I’m walking, although it’s unsteady, I’m walking, which I’m very happy for,” Franco said in a telephone interview Monday evening from his rehab center's bed. “I’m advancing every day and won’t accept anything less.”
Franco, 42, was pinned under a tree that fell on his patrol car at Fire Co. 5 on Lake Drive West Oct. 29, while responding to the scene of a ruptured gas line on the street.
Franco pulled up to speak to Assistant Company Chief John Neukum to determine if the road needed to be closed. Moments later, the tree fell on both his and Neukem's vehicles.
It took paramedics an hour to remove Franco from the vehicle.
In addition to walking, Franco, a father of three, has very limited mobility in his arms and neck.
Franco remembers every second of the horrific ordeal.
“The tree didn’t bounce, there was no bounce. It just crunched straight down. I thought I was going to die,” Franco said as his wife held the phone up to his head. “I said whatever prayers I could and thought of my family.”
Franco’s head was pinned into his right shoulder; his bulletproof vest was strangling him.
Franco said there were live electrical wires around the vehicles.
“Everyone who was at that scene took a risk saving me,” Franco said. “I owe all those guys my life.”
Capt. Mark McGrath, Franco’s longtime friend and fellow police officer, was one of those guys.
“He pulled the vest down so I could breathe. He kept repeating: ‘I got you pal.’ He kept reassuring me that everything was going to be OK,” Franco said.
McGrath said he simply came to the aid of a friend.
“I just wanted to let him know that I was there,” McGrath said. “That kind of thing happens to first responders every day but you can’t think about that when you’re out there doing your job during something like a hurricane. We’ve known each other for years and I know he would have done the same thing for me without hesitation.”
Neukem escaped the incident with only minor injuries.
“I can’t explain what happened because I know what the outcome should have been,” Neukem said. “If it wasn’t for him, if he wasn’t there, I would have been dead. He saved me and I saved him.”
Franco was immobilized in the days following the accident but is slowly regaining his ability to move.
He said he has received cards and well wishes from across the country.
Local residents have also shown their support. The police department has set up a donation fund. Two residents held a charity run earlier this month. Fairway Market in Woodland Park will donate a portion of sales this Thursday to Franco and his family.
But he isn’t letting his physical limitations prevent him from looking toward the future. Franco wants to continue keeping Wayne safe and enjoying life.
“I have a wife and kids to get back to and take care of and I have a career to finish,” Franco said. “I am bound and determined to get back to the way things were. I need to be able to fully use my arms and legs again so I can give each one of those people who helped me that day a great big bear hug."