At storm's peak, a rescue effort impeded
Click here for an interactive graphic — pairing police dispatch recordings and maps of Princeton — detailing the attempt to reach the house of William Sword '76.
It was the height of Hurricane Sandy, and much of Princeton lay in pitch darkness, countless roads were closed and even the town's emergency operations center — created to manage the crisis response — lost power for a time.
As emergency personnel kept track of road closures and downed trees across the Princeton area, the operations center received a 911 call: A Township man, William Sword ’76, had been hit by a falling tree.
The report set in motion a series of events, reconstructed with police records and emergency dispatch recordings, that underscore the difficulties emergency workers faced in responding to the incident. Unsure of all the road closures across town, the dispatch records show how police officers, navigating around downed trees and power lines, attempted to find an expedient route to Sword's home but were faced with multiple impassable roads.
At one point, an officer recommended driving off the road to get around a tree. Earlier, police had contemplated asking a neighboring police department to reach Sword's house from another direction. As options for getting to the Sword home diminished, a police officer asked that a Public Works Department vehicle clear trees so officers could get to the home.
These records, recounting a 26-minute span on Oct. 29, only include the police department's efforts to reach Sword. That night, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad and Princeton Fire Department beat police officers to the scene, but dispatch records from those departments were not made available for public review. Sword was pronounced dead that night.
Two Fallen Trees
Earlier that evening, a tree had fallen on the Swords’ residence at 1036 Great Road in a highly wooded area of Princeton Township. The tree made a 5-foot hole on one side of the house’s roof, according to Township Police Captain Francisco Castro’s investigation report, filed after the incident.
Sword called Jud Linville ’79, a neighbor who lives across the street, and asked him to bring a chainsaw to cut and remove the tree. Linville drove the 450 feet that separate the two homes but had to exit his car outside Sword’s driveway, which was also blocked by a fallen tree.
Linville and Sword met in the driveway. They spoke briefly, but before they could do anything, another tree fell. A branch struck Sword in the back of the head. Linville was untouched but witnessed the entire incident and recounted the events to Castro.
According to Castro’s report, Linville immediately told Sword’s family to call 911.
Sword’s daughter called 911 at 8:30 p.m. The call was transferred to Lawrence Township.
“We need an ambulance right now,” she told the dispatcher, according to a recording of the conversation. The call was quickly rerouted to the Princeton EOC.
“What is going on? What is the emergency?” said the new operator, a male.
“My dad has been crushed by a tree,” Sword’s daughter said, before her voice trailed off.
Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, together with a fire truck, was dispatched immediately, along with the police.
Only four minutes before the daughter’s call, the Township Police — speaking for the emergency operations center — had tweeted they were working on “limited power” and “fighting Internet issues.” The incident could not have happened at a less opportune moment.
“Is Ridgeview open?” asked a police officer in car number 22, the first unit dispatched to Sword’s house.
“Negative,” the dispatcher responded. “There is a tree down at 339 Ridgeview.”
Similar interactions were repeated multiple times as police officers trying to reach Sword’s house realized that effectively every road that could lead them to the site was blocked.
At the same time, the dispatched officers struggled to pinpoint the exact location of the house, first suggesting it was about half a mile north of its actual location.
Sword lived in a house on Great Road, a long, wooded street that runs north-south in the Township. His house — about three miles from the University’s campus — is almost invisible using satellite imagery, surrounded by a blanket of trees.
1036 Great Road lies in the middle of a 1.5 mile section of the Great Road that was blocked due to fallen trees and wires on the evening of Oct. 29. The Township police department had announced this closing minutes before 8 p.m. on its Facebook account.
At the time, the police did not know the four roads that crossed Great Road closest to the house — Ridgeview and Cherry Valley to the north and Stuart and Pretty Brook immediately to the south — were blocked as well.
The officers in car 22 first drove down Cherry Valley Road. The officers asked the dispatcher if the road was open.
“We haven’t received reports on anything about Cherry Valley, but we haven’t been up there either,” the dispatcher said.
“So far, so good,” the officer responded.
The officers then turned south down Cherry Hill Road, trying to reach Stuart. But the road was blocked at the first intersection, with Ridgeview. They had known Ridgeview was closed, but the tree down on Cherry Hill left them unable to reach Stuart.
“Tree down across the roadway; appears to be no wires, but it’s impassable,” an officer said. This also prevented them from reaching the next intersection, Stuart Road.
They were running out of options to reach Sword’s house.
“The only way we haven’t tried yet is coming from 206 up Cherry Hill, and I believe there is a tree there,” the officer added, suggesting a very circuitous route.
Later on, the officer then asked for Princeton Public Works to come clear the path and allow them to reach Stuart, but the department's path was blocked as well.
“I’ll see what we can do,” the dispatcher said.
Soon after, another officer inquired into the possibility of getting the Montgomery Police Department involved, since the township’s border with Princeton lies just a few blocks north of the Sword’s house, but they were also blocked out of the area.
Later, an officer insisted once again on getting assistance from Public Works. Once a Public Works vehicle was in a position to help the officers, the dispatcher asked the officers for a way the vehicle could reach them.
The route one of the officers suggested was less than orthodox.
“Come up Cherry Hill, but there is going to be a tree in the roadway,” the officer told the dispatcher. “But if you hop the curb and go along the bike path area you’ll be able to get around it.”
Arriving at the scene
When Castro and Township Detective Ben Gering finally arrived at Sword’s house at some time between 8:45 p.m. and 8:55 p.m., two PFARS ambulances and one Fire Department ladder truck were already on the scene.
After getting out of their vehicle, Castro and Gering were informed by emergency medical personnel that Sword was deceased. Castro saw Sword “lying supine on the ground next to a large tree that had fallen toward the residence.”
PFARS director Frank Setnicky told Castro Sword had sustained “severe trauma to the back of his head” and that EMS workers had stopped lifesaving measures. Paramedics, who can pronounce people dead, had not yet arrived. Meanwhile, other workers escorted Sword’s wife and daughter into the house.
But soon after, an EMS worker detected a pulse in Sword. Emergency personnel then had to resume CPR measures, and Sword was loaded on a stretcher. When the paramedics arrived, they started tending to Sword as well.
Paramedics pronounced Sword dead at the scene at 8:56 p.m., speaking on the phone with a doctor from Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton.
Sword was transported to the morgue at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. The Mercer County Medical Examiner’s report attributed the death to “massive head trauma.”
Sword’s daughter and wife spent the rest of the evening at Linville’s residence.