Weehawken Councilwoman Carmella Silvestri Erhet had just stepped off the Hudson Bergen Light Rail train at Lincoln Harbor on Sept. 22 when she heard the meowing.
“I’d just come from my job in Manhattan,” she said. “My husband [regularly] picks me up at the station and drives me home. I was crossing the street between catch basins. I was going to step on the curb when I heard the yelp.”
She said she really didn’t know where it came from. There was a nearby construction site and she thought it might have come from there.
“I thought maybe it was a litter of kittens. So I looked around,” she said.
But the yelping didn’t come from the construction site, she said, and it sounded as if the cat was in distress.
The whole time, her husband was in the car, waiting to drive off. “I kept hearing the yelp,” she said. “I think the kitten heard our voices.”
Eventually she realized the kitten was in one of the catch basins.
Where the six-week-old kitten had come from originally, it was hard to say. If it had wandered down from the Palisades cliff separating Weehawken from Union City, then it would have had to have crossed railroad tracks, a parking lot, and all four lanes of Port Imperial Boulevard before it fell into the drain pipe.
She’s an animal person
Luckly, the kitten found some sympathetic ears that day.
“Some people call me St. Francis because everywhere I go I’m always looking for animals,” she said. “I keep a pouch of food in the car in case I run into an animal.”
She couldn’t see the kitten, but she dropped food down into the drain anyway.
“I’m not sure if the kitten ate it,” she said.
“I told him we can’t leave the kitten there.” – Carmella Silvestri Erhet
“I told my husband we have to get the cat out,” she said. “He said I was nuts. We couldn’t lift open the drain by hand.”
The drain covers were made of heavy metal and were about three feet long by two feet wide.
“I told him we can’t leave the kitten there,” she said. “This was after 9 p.m. So I knew the Department of Public Works office was closed.”
She called DPW Director Robert Barsa on his cell phone and left a message.
“[But] I knew he came into the office early,” she said. “I must have sounded frantic. I said, ‘Please don’t let the kitten die.’”
Barsa didn’t get the message until he got into the office the next morning. When he contacted her in the morning, he assured her the kitten would be all right.
But it was clear the kitten was scared and unable to make its way out of the sewer without help.
Barsa called Phil Reeve to get a crew to see if the kitten was still in the sewer. The group included Manny Delarosa, Juan Otero, and Eric Ruiz.
He also had to contact the North Hudson Sewerage Authority, which oversees the drains throughout the city.
An improvised rescue
Reeves said the DPW is occasionally called out to retrieve things dropped accidentally into sewer grates, such as keys, a wallet, or a cell phone. But this was the first cat.
The problem was that they couldn’t immediately determine where the cat was. While they could hear it, the kitten had apparently crawled along the 10-inch pipe. When the crew got there, the kitten was halfway between two openings. They offered it food and water, but it would not come to where they could reach it.
“Lucky for the kitten, it had crawled up the pipe,” said Erhet. “If it had rained, the kitten would not be affected.”
The crew created a small net or basket and held it against one end of the pipe, and then blew some air and water through the pipe out the other end. Out scooted the kitten, straight into the makeshift net.
“We blew in air one way, it ran out the other into the net,” said Delarosa. “We didn’t want to hurt it,” Otero said.
The whole rescue took about an hour to accomplish.
The kitten had hurt its eye at some point, and was a more than a little upset when the workers brought it back to the DPW office, where they had a temporary cage and food.
“We called him Monkey because that’s how he acted when we first put him in the cage,” said Jennifer, a dispatcher for the DPW.
By lunch time, Monkey had calmed down. “We brought the cat to the Hoboken Animal Hospital.”
A veterinarian treated the eye and gave the kitten antibiotics and other medication. They also gave Monkey its shots. The staff also reached out to a community member known to help cats to find a good home for Monkey.
“They did a really good job,” said Mayor Richard Turner.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.