A year after he was nearly killed in a horrific accident during Superstorm Sandy, Officer Robert Franco is back on the job.
Franco nearly died when a tree fell and crushed his patrol car on Lake Drive West while responding to the scene of a ruptured gas line.
Franco is back on light duty status. He works at a desk for 20 hours a week, four hours a day. He has been reviewing and updating several of the department’s policies. He returned to duty about two months ago.
“I always had a fuzzy goal at the end of getting back to work and getting back to taking care of my three kids and my wife,” Franco said. “I never had any doubt that I would be back.”
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.
“I thought I was going to die,” Franco said last December. “I said whatever prayers I could and thought of my family.”
Franco’s bulletproof vest was strangling him and there were live electrical wires around the vehicles. Powerful wind gusts blew down hundreds of trees throughout the township. The trees fell on top of vehicles and houses, many taking power lines with them.
“For 26 years I’ve been involved in emergency services and in all that time, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Franco said.
It took paramedics an hour to remove Franco from the vehicle.
Capt. Mark McGrath, Franco’s longtime friend and fellow police officer, was on the scene immediately. He pulled Franco’s vest down so he could breathe. He kept telling Franco “I got you pal.”
“It’s great to have him back,” McGrath said. “He’s on track for a full recovery and this is just one more step in that process.”
While Franco and McGrath are longtime friends and colleagues, McGrath said the incident is not one the men like to dwell on.
“We both decided that it’s in the past and are very glad that it turned out the way it did,” McGrath said. “We’re both looking toward the future.”
Franco was released from physical therapy in March but continues to go to the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange a few hours a week. He still has some problems with his right arm.
“It’s been very slow going,” Franco said.
Franco, who can walk completely on his own, can do a few push-ups now and recently qualified to begin using the department’s firearms again.
Franco began studying for a promotion just before he was injured. He started studying for the sergeant’s exam and continued to throughout his rehabilitation.
“Once January hit and I knew I was going to get through all of this, I hit the books again,” Franco said.
Now thanks to his scores, Franco is next in line to be promoted to sergeant.
“He is a testament to us all,” said Chief John Reardon. “His hard work, dedication, and commitment to getting back to work, providing for his family, and protecting the residents of Wayne is unbelievable.”
Several local organizations and businesses, including the Wayne Policemen’s Benevolence Association, held fundraisers and accepted donations for Franco after the accident. A few residents organized and ran a marathon around Packanack Lake.
“Obviously, I thank God and so many people prayed for me and I can’t thank them enough,” Franco said.